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16 January, 2021

Resuming the milestone playtest game. This is the Spring 1943 turn.

Spring, 1943

The turn began with production, both armies rebuilding their War decks to 11 cards each, and the Soviets adding two armies, one in Moscow and one in Stalingrad.

To review military operations, let’s start with the south, in what was a complex and dangerous set of stikes and counterstrikes by the opposing mobile forces. The Soviets went first, with an attempt to take Donbas, but ran into heavy resistance at Donbas, and were then struck by a German attack from the south, aiming to cut their supply line and destroy the Soviet tank army leading the attack. The Soviets, however, once again had strategic depth, deploying armies from the Stavka Reserve, including another tank army, for which the Germans had no answer. The result was a Soviet drive that took Rostov, almost trapping a German panzer corps there, but which in the end was narrowly able to escape.

In the north it was the Germans who attacked first, attempting to drive on Yaroslavl. The attack stalled, however, and was ultimately driven back.

Unfortunately for the Germans, with all their resources diverted to either the north or south, they had no means to resist when a Soviet two-prong center offensive was launched, erasing all of the gains of the German Autumn of 42 center offensive. Worse, a panzer corps was lost, out of a refusal to abandon its position northwest of Moscow until leaving in good order was no longer an option.

Compounding the German woes was that with Rostov under Soviet control, almost the entire Caucasus region so recently conquered had to be abandoned, including the oil site at Maikop.

The bad outcome for the Germans for the turn can ultimately be said to be due to the fact that the Germans failed to realize the extent to which their army had weakened and that of the Soviets strengthened. Even local attacks had become risky for the Germans (two were attempted, neither succeeded) and the threat from the increased Soviet strength continued to rise.

With that, on to Summer 1943.

Summer, 1943

Before talking about this turn, I want to give some historical and design background.

Historically, in 1943, there were evidently (extremely) quiet secret peace talks going on between the Germans and Soviets. Stalin was frustrated with the lack of a second front from the western allies, and with his hopes of a quick victory, raised and dashed after the Winter of 1941-42, and again after the German recovery from Stalingrad in early 1943, he was willing to consider alternatives to a long and (no doubt costly) continuation of the war. Hitler, having gone through the same experience in the summers of 1941 and 1942, was also willing to consider alternatives to fighting it out.

Historically, these talks came to nothing. The Germans wanted an in-place peace, whereas the Soviets wanted a return to the 1941 borders. While conceivably some kind of compromise might have been reached, the Soviet victory at Kursk and the allied landings in Italy put an end to any Soviet interest in anything other than crushing Nazi Germany once and for all.

In designing Stavka, a major game design question is how the Germans can “win” the game. Realistically, the pre-war German ideas about destroying the Soviets and occupying almost all the European Soviet Union up to the so-called “A-A line” (from Archangel to Astrakhan) were not realistic as game objectives. After trying some alternatives, I decided to use the historical 1943 negotiations as a baseline: If the Germans had more production than the Soviets on any turn in 1943, then the game ended with a Germany victory (representing a separate peace).

In the current game we’re narrating, this kind of German victory was on the edge of happening if the Soviets could not take one of three production cities (Leningrad, Kharkov, or Donbas) by the end of the Summer 1943 turn.

And with that in mind, let’s return to the game commentary.

The opposing armies again recovered their card strength to the levels about those of the prior turn. The Germans were still at reduced strength after the loss of the panzer corps during the Spring, and the Soviets actually reduced their paper strength by breaking up two armies so as to have more resources for those that remained.

The Soviets made three attacks: on Leningrad, Kharkov, and Donbas. The northern drive proved almost successful, but was stopped at the gates of the city. It did, however cut off a German panzer corps which attempted to hold its existing position. The drive on Kharkov likewise failed, but with no positive results at all for the effort expended. With three Soviet tank armies committed along with against three German panzer corps, the Donbas attack, after a ferocious exchange which was very nearly driven back, instead prevailed, taking the city.

Large-scale German territorial losses continued, with the German northernmost forces cut off and forced to surrender, along with smaller losses in the south, although those losses included Donbas.

On to Autumn 1943.

Autumn, 1943

Both armies rebuilt their war decks to the prior turn’s levels. The Germans rebuilt a panzer corps to replace the one lost in the previous Autumn, and the Soviets added a new army in Moscow.

Once again, the main activity was in the south, with two Soviet offensives, one aimed at the recapture of Kharkov, and the other aimed at the German resource sites on the west bank of the Dniepr. The latter succeeded, and Kharkov was finally recaptured by the soviets. The former made progress but ultimately fell short and made it to the Dniepr, but failed to establish a bridgehead there.

In the north, both armies strengthened their positions, where the rebuilt German panzer corps was sent, opposed by two Soviet armies, but the only conflict was the Soviet seizure of the lightly defended Leningrad.

The Germans accepted the unpleasant reality of their situation and attempted no offensive of their own, limiting themselves to local counter-attacks to try to throw back (or at least slow down) the Soviet advance.

On to Winter 1943.

Winter, 1943

In production, both sides rebuilt their decks. Although the Soviets had retaken 3 production cities, none of them would be in operation for several months.

The Soviets continued their push in south, seizing the resource sites on the west bank of the Dniepr. After a quiet autumn, the Soviets also resumed the offensive in the center, driving through Smolensk and seizing Vitebsk. Afraid of having their forces in the north cut off, the Germans pulled back, ceding Pskov.

Next up, of course, would be Spring, 1944. But we’ll save that for the next entry. Til then!

14 January, 2021

So, let’s pick up our milestone playtest game where we left off. Next up is the Soviet 1941 winter offensive.

Soviet Winter Offensive, 1941

The game has harsh rules for the Germans in the second Military Phase of 1941 (a -2 penalty for all momentum draws, and no deployment moves), and the Soviets take the Initiative and so get first move, so Winter can be a dangerous time for the Germans. However, the tactically successful but strategically meaningless Soviet Autumn offensive of the previous turn used up a lot of what strength the Soviets possessed, so the only thing the Soviets were able to accomplish in the Winter was a small offensive towards Leningrad, which fell short of the city. Apart from that, all they did was some re-deployment in the south.

The Germans, for their part, huddled in the cold and sat tight, waiting for Spring.

One thing worth mentioning is an additional penalty, applied at the end of Winter: the Germans have to transfer 6 cards from the Junk deck into their Production deck, diluting the quality of the Germans card draws. Anyway, onto the Spring of 1942, where, to pick up the pace, we’re going to cover the entire turn at once:

Spring, 1942

This was an important turn for the German war economy, as 3 captured Soviet resource sites started production this turn, boosting German production from 9 to 12. This enabled enough of a recovery of card strength to enable them to return to the offensive.

The Soviets, for their part, perhaps didn’t make the best choices, trying to keep too many units in the field with too little production. Almost their entire card income for the turn went into maintenance, resulting in a Soviet net loss of card strength from the start of the previous turn.

Operationally, the bad Soviet run continued. A poorly judged attempt at redeployment in the north from offensive to defensive posture left the Soviets caught unprepared when the Germans attacked, resulting in the loss of 2 Soviet armies. The Soviets fared no better in the south, where 4 German panzer corps struck, destroying 3 Soviet armies, with the German breakthroughs taking them close to Stalingrad, which the Soviets reinforced with an army committed from the Stavka Reserve.

But lost in the gloom were some important shifts: the quality of the Soviet armies (reflected in card values) was clearly improved from 1941, while the average German card quality declined.

On to Summer 1942:

Summer, 1942

The Soviets rebuilt 2 of the lost armies from the Spring, putting one in Stalingrad and another in the north, this left them with an increased card count from the prior turn for operations (7 cards, up from 5). German expenditures were stable, but were not able to replace all the cards used in the Spring, and so entered Summer with a slightly lower card count than that turn (11 cards vs. 13).

Displaying a mix of caution and confidence, the Germans felt unenthused about an assault into Stalingrad, which now contained 3 Soviet armies, and decided instead to open up an offensive into the Caucasus for its oil. To enable shipment of that oil, they needed to deliver a killing blow to the Soviet Black Sea fleet by taking Sevastopol, its only usable base, and thus diverted one panzer corps into Crimea, while a second panzer corps made a limited advance into the Caucasus, establishing a position south of the Don.

The Soviets for their part were likewise economical, limiting their operations to sending an army from Stalingrad to cover the route to Grozny, a city whose loss could well have been decisive.

On to Autumn, 1942:

Autumn, 1942

This is a pretty complex turn, but we’ll walk through it slowly.

After a quiet Summer, both armies built up more cards than either had had in a year (15 German and 12 Soviet) and were ready for major action.

The Germans had the initiative and so struck first. They opened with an renewal of the Caucasus offensive, destroying the Soviet army to their front, but as a new Soviet army was transferred in from the north to continue to cover Grozny, the Germans settled for taking the oil site at Maikop. There were now 2 panzer corps in the Caucasus offensive: one acting as spearhead and the other acting as reserve.

The Germans also launched a two-pronged offensive towards Moscow, not so much with the aim of taking the city, but instead to draw off Soviet resources and increase the threat to the Soviet capitol. The northern attack ran into heavy resistance against the Soviet army there, but after destroying it still made it half-way to Moscow, with the Soviets responding by moving up an army into Moscow from the east. The southern attack covered more distance, but lacked the strength to generate much of a threat without support.

The Germans also made two support moves: the panzer corps in Crimea was recalled and took up a position near Rostov, while another corps made an tactical offensive to increase the buffer between German-occupied Kharkov and the Soviet front lines.

In response the Soviets launched their strongest offensive of the war. An infantry army and the first Soviet tank army were committed from the Stavka Reserves (as shown by the face-up cards at the top of the map) to strike west from Stalingrad towards Rostov. Parallel and to the south of the attack of these two armies was a second drive with two more infantry armies to its south. Both ran into German panzer corps stationed to cover such a possibility. The northern drive was defeated and driven back, but the southern drive succeeded and drove halfway to Rostov.

The Germans, although alarmed by the extent of the Soviet advance in the south, had still in the end brought it to a stop, and were by no means ready to give up the offensive. On to Winter, 1942:

Winter, 1942

Both armies rebuilt their War decks to start the Winter, with the Germans at 12 cards and the Soviets 11. The Soviets also built a pair of new armies, one in Moscow and one in Stalingrad to replace those lost in the Autumn. With a new tank army in the field, overall the Soviets were stronger than they had ever been.

In spite of the Soviet offensive in the south, the Germans retained the initiative and struck first, with a three panzer corps offensive towards Stalingrad, with two more panzer corps providing strategic flank security, one near Kharkov and one in the Caucasus. The main drive on Stalingrad was from the east, by the two panzer corps that had engaged the Soviet Autumn offensive, while the third panzer corps in the offensive, recalled from the Caucasus, hit the salient from the Soviet autumn offensive on its southern flank.

The main German attack ran into the Soviet infantry and tank army securing Stalingrad. Counter-attacking powerfully, the Soviets threw back the Germans to their starting positions. Then it was the Soviets turn: committing a second newly-ready tank army from the Stavka Reserve, the Soviets hit hard, and drove the Germans before them. While the German attack from the south had success, destroying a Soviet army, the great strength of the main Soviet advance to its north was more than it could overcome.

In response to the strength of the failure of their own attack, and the success of Soviet counter-attack, the Germans re-contrated their armor, pulling the remaining corps from the Caucasus, and the summoning the panzer corps that had been guarding Kharkov to the south. With both Rostov and Donbas in danger, the Germans concentrated all their available strength to face whatever the Soviets might attempt in the Spring.

And with that, I’m going to close off this entry. Til’ next time!

12 January, 2021

So, it’s been a busy few weeks. Playtesting, revisions, playtesting, revisions, that’s my life. Last I wrote we were on V39, and are now on V43. What I’m about to review was an important milestone in the game’s playtesting, a V41 game. (V42, incidentally, was a busted version, which I create now and again, because sometimes I can be stupid and/or careless.) V43 was just released, but no games with V43 have yet been played, so V41 is very nearly current.

So, here’s the game before set-up:

Prior to Setup: Barbarossa Turn, 1941

The cards in the top-left have not yet been dealt to the different decks in the game. On the left are 8 German armor units (broadly equal to panzer corps) that will be set-up in Germany and Poland, and bottom-left one German infantry unit (broadly equal to an army) for set-up in Romania. In the middle are 8 Soviet units (each broadly equal to a reinforced army, although the Soviet organizational scheme varied wildly during the war): 2 have to set-up near the front line, and the other 6 in Soviet production cities (the red circles). Also, the Germans have an infantry cadre (bottom-left) available for conversion into an infantry unit, and the Soviets have 3 such cadres (top-left).

With the stage set, let’s move on:

Setup: Barbarossa Turn, 1941

Let’s start with the card decks. They’ve been sorted and dealt. The windows on the right side are both private to the players and contain the cards in their respective War decks (Soviets top, Germans bottom). In the physical game, each player would have a single deck and would thumb through it, but for the Vassal version, thumbing is hard and sorting is easy, so they’ve been sorted into suits. The Germans have an enormous advantage in War deck cards at start, with 47 (almost all high-value) vs. a Soviet total of 8 (probably most or all low-value).

A critical thing to understand is that the units are conduits for the application of military power and capability, which is what the cards represent. The fact that the Soviets have the same number of units at start as the Germans isn’t going to help them at all. With so few cards, and even fewer (if any) high-value cards, the Soviet army is essentially hollow: it looks better on the map than it will be able to function in battle.

Speaking of the units, the Soviets set-up first. They’ve put one front-line army in to cover the Ukraine, and the other in Minsk to cover the center. The rest of the Soviet army is in resserve formations far to the rear. The game pretty much locks the Soviets into their historical state: grossly unprepared for what is about to happen. The Germans have initially put 3 panzer corps with Army Group North, 2 with the Center, and 3 with South. Putting more weight south than the Germans did historically is pretty common among the playtesters, though there is quite a bit of variation. (Incidentally, I’ve prettied things up a little for the picture.)

The movable front-line pieces aren’t on the board. This is pretty common with playtesters for the opening turn; there is already a printed front-line on the map, so the movable pieces are redundant.

With the stage set, let’s move on and look at the first attack:

The Opening Attack: Barbarossa Turn, 1941

We’re going to go very slowly at first, to make what’s happening clear so that you can follow what’s happening later, when we will go a lot faster.

The German unit currently in 613 (top-left) has drawn a card (bottom) to set its initial Momentum value, which is a sort of combination movement value and combat strength. So at start, it had a Momentum:4, the value of the card. Each step a unit takes costs it 1 Momentum, so after starting with 4, it reaches position 613 with Momentum:3.

Now, by crossing the front-line, it is Attacking and starting a Battle in 613 with the Soviet front-line forces, which are abstracted in the game and not represented by distinct pieces. Battles have a Score, and the Score at the of the battle determines the winner. (Attackers win on a Score of zero or greater, while Counter-Attackers win on a Score of less than zero. Consequently, actions by Attackers add to the Score, while actions by Counter-Attackers are subtracted from the Score.)

The German unit enters the battle with its Momentum:3. Front-line defenses in the game always have a Resistance of 1. So, the battle starts by subtracting the resistance from the Attacking momentum to obtain the score. After doing so, the battle has a score of +2 (GermanMomentum:3 – SovietResistance:1 = Score:+2)

Now, the initial German Attack gave the Soviets a chance to Block the Attack: to move forward and Counter-Attack. The Soviets declined to do this. Infantry is stronger defending in place than moving to intercept, so the Soviet unit in 619 is content to let the Germans come to it rather than rush forward to meet them.

And thus the battle ends. The German unit wins with a +2 score, which it is able to convert to Momentum:2 and use that momentum to make an Advance move:

Renewed Advance, Soviet Counter-Attack: Barbarossa Turn, 1941

First things first, that card is not the German card we saw earlier, that is a Soviet card. As to what it’s doing there, let’s walk through it.

The advancing German unit has moved on to the position of the Soviet infantry at 619. This time, the Soviets have chosen to Block the German move, and this card is the Soviet momentum for that block. The way the German Advance and Soviet Block get resolved is as an Attack by the German unit and a Counter-Attack by the Soviets, which are resolved separately.

First, the Germans used 1 momentum to reach this position, so after starting the advance with a Momentum:2, they now have a Momentum:1, which they bring to the Attack. Against this, because the Soviet infantry hasn’t moved, it gets a Resistance of 1. (If the Soviet unit had moved out of this position to block the Germans earlier, it would not have gotten this Resistance value.) As before, to get the score we subtract the Soviet Resistance from the German Momentum, and end up with a score of +0. (GermanMomentum:1 – SovietResistance:1 = Score:+0)

But this does not end the battle; we have the Soviet Counter-Attack to execute. The Soviets drew a 4, and so start with Momentum:4, but infantry Counter-Attack Momentum is capped at 3, so the actual Soviet Momentum in the Counter-Attack is Momentum:3. The Germans do not have Resistance (Only the front-line and infantry units defending in place get resistance) so to execute the Counter-Attack we just have to subtract the Sovet unit’s Momentum from the previous score to get a new score of -3. (Score:+0 - Momentum:3 = Score:-3)

At this point, the Soviets are winning the battle. But the battle isn’t over. The Germans are permitted to send more units to the battle before it is finally resolved. And this they do:

The Renewed Advance: Barbarossa Turn, 1941

A second German unit has made a move from 606 to the battle position. Again, it had a 4-value card (no, this is not the same card you’ve seen before, it is a different card with the same suit and value) and so starts with a Momentum:4.

Unlike with the first unit, it does not have to fight a battle when it crosses the front-line. The previous German unit broke the front-line defenses on that route, and now additional German units can move through without resistance.

After two steps, the German unit reaches the battle position, with Momentum:2 remaining. By doing so, it Attacks, and the score is again modified, this time to -1. (Score:-3 + Momentum:2 = Score:-1)

This score is marked by the red die with its 1-pip side face-up you can see above the German units.

The Soviets are still winning the battle, but the battle still isn’t over. The Germans are still able to later send additional units. But they do not have to do it right away; in fact, they have the entire turn to do it. For now, they are going to move on and do other things.

The 1st Military Phase, German Moves: Barbarossa Turn, 1941

I did say were were going to go faster, and so we are. Now, this is not actually a turn-based game, but one player at a time is the Active Player and get to keep moving until they make a Passive Action (like a move behind their own lines with no Counter-Attacks, or a literal Pass Action), at which point the other player takes over, and it goes back and forth until both players have done everything they want to do / can do for the phase.

What you see above are 7 more German moves: 3 German units have advanced in the north, 2 in the center, 1 more in the south, and another out of Romania. Everywhere the front-line was crossed there was a battle, so there were a total of 4 front-line battles in this turn, and 1 more battle in the south between the German armor unit and Soviet infantry unit.

In general, each of those 9 German moves required a card, so the German War deck, which started at 47 cards is now down to 38 cards, except that it isn’t: it is down to 39 cards. The reason for the discrepancy is that units are allowed to make 1-step moves without drawing a card, and one of the German units did just that. (If you're interested, the German cards were 4,4,4,3,4,3,3,3.)

With the German Pass the Soviets become the active player.

The 1st Military Phase, Soviet Moves: Barbarossa Turn, 1941

So, what the Soviets have basically done is to move the units initially scattered among production cities in their rear forward to form a defensive line ahead of the German advance. The basic goal is to deploy as far forward as possible without being so far forward that there is a danger that the Germans will break the line with their next moves. The particular concern is that there are two Military Phases in a turn, and German armor can advance in both of them, and it is these second phase moves that the Soviets are trying to blunt.

The way they’ve done this is by making long-distance Deployment Moves which are moves of unlimited distance, but which can’t Attack or Counter-Attack. They are also moves that don’t require using a card, unlike the War Moves the Germans have used.

Also of interest is what the Soviets haven’t done: their two most forward units haven’t moved. The reason for this is that the positions close to the German advance are now Disputed Positions, which is kind of like a zone-of-control: the Soviet units in those positions can’t move except to Counter-Attack, which one of them has already done (the one we reviewed) and the other of which has already declined to do in response to the German advance.

The Soviet moves were all passive, so in theory the Germans had a chance to be the active player after each one of them, but the Germans have no more moves to make, so the Soviets just moved until they were done too.

And at this point, the First Military Phase is complete. Onto the second. Remember that battle we left unresolved? Well, it’s just about over:

Renewed Battle, 2nd Military Phase: Barbarossa Turn, 1941

A third German unit has entered the battle. It started with a Momentum:5, spent one to reach the battle position, arriving there at Momentum:4. Its Attack increases the score to +3 (Score:-1 + GermanMomentum:4 = Score:+3). There was no Soviet infantry defense this time, as a unit only gets to apply that once per battle.

The Soviet infantry unit at the battle position cannot block and Counter-Attack this time: armor is allowed to make War Moves in both the 1st and 2nd Military Phases, but infantry can only make War Moves in one of them, but not both. (Unlike games with a ”Main Movement Phase” and ”Mechanized Movement Phase”, the two Military Phases in Stavka are identical; an infantry unit can make a War Move in either of them, it just can’t be both of them, while armor can.)

The Soviets could, in theory, try to block with the more distant units, but those units would use a lot of momentum to reach the battle position, if they could reach it at all. Their mission in any case isn’t to save the forward unit, which isn’t really something that can be done, but to form a front further to the rear.

So, with no further ability for the Soviets to continue the battle, it is over and the Germans win. The German unit that just moved gets to convert final battle score of +3 into Momentum:3 for an advance move, and with the battle over, the other two German units in the battle position are likewise free to move.

So, let’s skip ahead a ways:

Lvov Pocket, 2nd Military Phase: Barbarossa Turn, 1941

This shows the situation in the south after the Germans complete their 2nd Military Phase moves, and what it shows is the formation of a pocket (indicated with the red highlight). This portion of the Soviet front-line has had its supply cut off. (See where the breakthroughs from the south and Romania meet? There is no gap there through which a supply path can be traced.) That pocket will result in a card penalty for the Soviets at the start of next turn, as we shall see.

Another thing worth pointing out is the newly-started battle south of Kiev. We won’t walk through the details, but the Germans used all their Momentum getting there with and so were at Momentum:0 on arrival. They hit the Soviet Resistance:1, and that resulted in a score of -1 (GermanMomentum:0 – SovietResistance:1 = Score:-1). No more German units can intervene, as they have all gone as far as they can, and so it is going to ultimately get resolved as a Soviet victory. However, while the Soviet infantry we saw earlier was removed from play when it lost a battle, the German armor is just going to be forced to retreat. This is a difference between armor and infantry in the game: armor retreats when it loses battles, infantry dies.

But let’s continue the 2nd Military Phase of the turn:

German Advance in Center and North, 2nd Military Phase: Barbarossa Turn, 1941

First, the Germans steamrollered the Soviet unit in Minsk. A panzer corps hit it with Momentum:3 against Resistance:1, the Soviet infantry Blocked and Counter-Attacked with Momentum:2, but the result was a Score:0 German victory (GermanMomentum:3 – SovietResistance:1) – SovietMomentum:2 = Score:0). The other German armies advanced through the position, up to but not challenging the Soviet unit southeast of Minsk.

Next, the Germans tried to shoot the gap in the north between two of the units in the newly-constructed Soviet defensive line, but the Soviets blocked successfully. The Germans had used all their momentum getting to the battle position, resulting in a -1 Soviet victory (GermanMomentum:0 – SovietResistance:1 = Score:-1).

Finally, note the formation of a second pocket, this time around Bialystock. And with this we’ve completed the German moves for the 2nd Military Phase. With that, the Germans retreat from the battles they lost and the Soviets make their moves:

German Retreats, Soviet Moves, 2nd Military Phase: Barbarossa Turn, 1941

So, the Soviets have made some adjustments, including abandoning the production and resource site city of Kiev, leaving it to the Germans, in spite of its considerable value to both armies. (The Soviets in the game have already given up two major pockets and are in no hurry to give up another one around Kiev.) IN sum, the Soviets have held their position in the north, fallen back to Smolensk in the center, and put three armies in the bend of the Dniepr in the south.

Next up, we enter the Adjustment Phase, where we transition to the next turn:

Adjustment Phase: Barbarossa Turn, 1941

So, the Adjustment Phase is a grab bag of items to clean up the game state from the just-completed turn and prepare for the next turn.

The most important thing is to create a new front line, reflecting the territory that changed control during the turn. Some of the transfers of territory are mandatory and based on units taking enemy territory through breakthroughs, and others are optional: armies are permitted to withdraw from positions deemed untenable. (Generally this is done to avoid having sections of the front-line cut out of supply, which costs cards.)

And after the new front line is constructed, all the breakthrough markers are removed. For this turn, it results in the above.

One step down in importance is that cards are transferred from each army’s production deck (4 a turn, 2 German, 2 Soviet) into the Soviet Stavka Reserve deck, where they accumulate until used. (Further discussion of the Stavka Reserve deck can wait until it is used.)

Oh, there is one thing I want to note, even though it didn’t happen in the Adjustment Phase proper: and that is the accumulating cards in the Junk deck in the bottom-left corner. These are low-value (1 and 2 value cards) that each army can each army can dump there over the course of play in order to remove the low-value cards from their Production decks and increase the overall quality of the cards they draw. (Being able to draw 8 cards a turn can mean very different things if the cards are all 1s and 2s vs. all 3s, 4s, and 5s.)

Anyway, this completes the Barbarossa turn. On to the Summer turn of 1941, starting with the Economic Phase:

Economic Phase: Summer, 1941

Each turn after the first starts with the Economic Phase. Each army gets to add cards to its War deck, and spend any or all of those cards to maintain or strengthen its armies, always trying to save a balance of cards for operations in the turn’s two Military Phases: without cards, units can do very little.

At the start of the Economic Phase, each army counts production from its production sources. The Germans have a baseline production of 9 for the cities and resource sites they control at start. (Production cities and resource sites are in red.) However, until they capture the port of Odessa (which they haven’t yet), which was promised to Romania as a prize for allying with Germany, they can’t count the production from the Romanian capital of Bucharest, so right away the German production is down from 9 to 8.

The Soviets, for their part, start with a baseline production of 12 from their 12 production cities. However, because historically, large portions of the Soviet industrial plant were being loaded onto trains for shipment beyond the Urals, they take a -2 production hit this turn, (the penalty is shown in the Time Track on the right edge of the board), leaving them with 10.

For each point of production, both armies get to transfer a card from their Production deck to their War deck. Additionally, each turn there is a production card swap of 2 Soviet cards for 3 German cards. This sets in motion a slow reduction in the number of cards the Germans have and an increase in the number of cards the Soviets have. This is a game abstraction representing the ever more constrictive limits of the German war economy and the deep strength of the Soviet war economy.

With Production out of the way, the Economic Phase proceeds to Expenditures: maintaining and buying units.

The Germans, for their part, will owe 6 cards to maintain their armor, and 1 card to maintain their infantry. So, for the Economic Phase as a whole, the Germans are net +1 (they received 8 cards and expended 7).

Soviet expenditures are a little more complicated. For starters, they owe 5 cards for the two pockets that were cut off by the Germans in the prior turn. They also owe 3 maintenance for their 6 infantry units. So, for the Economic Phase as a whole, the Soviets are net +2 (they received 10 cards and expended 8).

If we compare to the prior turn, the Soviets started the game with 8 cards in their War Deck, expended 3 in operations, got 2 more and so now have 7 cards. The Germans started with many more (47) but expended 16 (!), and with net +1 for production, will enter the Summer Turn with 31 cards: still a lot, but the German burn rate is totally unsustainable.

Fortunately for the Soviets, in the summer of 1941 they get units through Mobilization, calling up 2nd line units. While eventually the Soviets will be able to mobilize 12 units, they are constrained each turn by the number of cadres they posses: cores around which to build the new units. The Soviets started the game with 3 cadres, and their 2 units defeated in battle were reduced to cadres (rather than eliminated per se) and so can mobilize 5 units. Which they do. Added to the 6 units left over from the prior turn, they now have 11 units on the map.

Picking up the pace from the first turn, we’re going to go through the entire First Military Phase in one go:

1st Military Phase: Summer, 1941

We’re going to start with German operations, working our way from south to north. The German infantry unit broke through the Soviet front-line and took Odessa, fulfilling Germany’s promise to Romania and earning Bucharest’s production for the Germans.

Converging from the Ukraine and center, we see a German pincer movement converging to create another pocket around Kiev. Two Soviet armies were taken off the board for trying to interfere, one by the center panzers and one by the southern panzers. Also in the center, a battle has started as a German panzer corps has driven on Smolensk. The Soviets are (for now) winning at Score:-1. In the north, two panzer corps have engaged a single Soviet army at Pskov, where (again for now) the Soviets are winning at Score:-1.

The Soviet response has been to bring forward the newly mobilized units to create a new line behind the current one. While it may seem like the Soviets should move them forward more aggressively, the big danger is losing those units as well, which could produce a disastrous Autumn. Worth remembering is that the Soviets are desperately short on cards: they started the turn with 7 and are already down to 4. The Soviets are simply not well enough equipped, trained, or organized to go toe-to-toe with the Germans at this point in the game.

(Oh, and by the way, if you look you will notice a red token in the lower-left corner of the map. Red and blue tokens were being used to track cards added to the junk deck, and you will see more of them in that area as the game proceeds. They are not, however, a reliable count to the number of cards in that deck.)

On to the next Military Phase:

2nd Military Phase: Summer, 1941

Again, let’s start with German operations, from south to north. The German armor in the Dnieper bend drove east, destroying a Soviet army at Nikopol, and seizing both it and the production site at Dniepropetrovsk, and then gaining a bridgehead across the Dnieper, threatening Donbas. Somewhat to the north, pincers from the south and center met to create a pocket around Kiev. The remaining panzer corps in the center swung southward as well, not attempting battle with either of the two Soviet armies defending the approaches to Moscow. Finally, in the north, after finishing off the Soviet army at Pskov, the panzers bypassed the next Soviet defensive line, cutting off Leningrad but not (yet) taking the city.

The pockets created by these operations are in red.

The Soviets brought their strength up to 11 armies at the start of the turn, but of those armies 4 have been destroyed, and 2 others bypassed and rendered ineffective. There isn’t a lot the Soviets can do here, but what they have done is dipped into the Stavka Reserve, which makes this a good time to talk about the Stavka Reserve.

The Soviets in the war were always careful to maintain a strategic reserve of forces, of which the Germans knew nothing. In the game, that is represented by the cards in the Stavka Reserve deck, which the Soviets can convert into units. In addition, they can take high-value cards used to purchase those units, and divide them between their War deck and Production deck, while fobbing off any low-value cards on the Germans, thereby diluting the German deck with low-value cards. (At some point, the Germans will draw those low-value cards into their War Deck instead of drawing the high-value cards the Germans would want.)

Anyway, in this turn the Soviets drew two cards from the Stavka Reserve, the 4 and 3 cards you see face-up at the top of the map. The 4 they added to their War Deck and the 3 they added to their Production deck. They used those cards to raise a new army, which they deployed at Donbas and then moved northeast, contributing to a 3-army concentration around Kharkov.

So, to pick up the pace again, what we’re going to do this time is cover the Summer 1941 Adjustment Phase and the Autum 1941 Economic Phase together:

Adjustment Phase, Summer 1941, to Economic Phase, Autumn 1941

Let’s start with the Summer 1941 Adjustment Phase and the front-line. The two Soviet units that were bypassed earlier were in territory the Soviets lost and so were reduced to cadres. (Some would have escaped, even if not the army as a whole.)

The German advance was held back in the center fairly well, and Moscow looks to be in no serious jeopardy this turn. However, in the north, Leningrad is now cut off and is under siege. (Pockets in the game surrender at the end of each turn unless they can receive sea supply. In Leningrad’s case, as historically, the Soviets can still provide limited supply to the city over Lake Ladoga.) In the south, the Kiev pocket surrendered, the Germans have taken Odessa and the Dnieper bend, and are now threatening Kharkov and Donbas.

The orange and green tokens you see on the map represent captured production cities and sites. The Germans can get no production from them immediately, but will after a delay. If you look on the Time Track, you can see tokens of matching colors there. The matching tokens indicate when the Germans will start getting production from those cities and sites.

Moving on to the Economic Phase, having captured Odessa, the Germans are not getting full Romanian production, but even so, their operations card expenditures in the last turn were heavy, and they’ve gone from having 32 cards in their War Deck down to 17. The core problem the Germans face in the game (as in the war) is starting to bite: the German war economy is not capable of supporting forces of this size operating at this level of intensity. Meanwhile, the Soviets are still suffering the economic dislocations from the invasion, have not yet fully mobilized their economy, and are struggling just to keep their heads above water. For the coming turn, they are now at 9 cards in their War Deck.

What the Soviets have continued to do is mobilize additional armies, adding 7 new armies to the 5 that survived the Summer turn. The Soviets could have mobilized an army inside Leningrad, but elected not to and put their efforts elsewhere. Their basic problem is that even if they had put an army inside Leningrad, it is hard to see how they could prevent the Germans from taking the only remaining Ladoga port from which supplies to the city could be shipped.

Card transfer operations have otherwise continued, slowly altering the capabilities of the opposing armies. Cards have been transferred into the Stavka Reserve deck and between the Soviet and German production deck, and cards continue to quietly accumulate in the Junk deck.

So, we’re going to present the 1st Military Phase and the first half of the 2nd Military Phase together, as these two combined show the German Autumn 1941 offensive:

German Offensive, Autumn 1941

Let’s start in the south, where 5 German panzer corps ripped through and destroyed the 4 Soviet armies attempting the defense of Kharkov and Donbas, capturing both cities and creating a small pocket as well. The center was fairly quiet, with one of the northern panzer armies turning towards the center while the other remaining immobile. And finally, in the north, the Germans completed the capture of Leningrad.

Considering this, we are seeing a clear reduction in the level of German military activity, with the south as the location of the only major German offensive. This has multiple causes: The Germans diverted two-thirds of the armor from Army Group Center to Army Group South. With the only panzer corps left in the center facing off against 3 Soviet armies it was able to accomplish little. The northern armor was divided between one corps sent to capture Leningrad while the other probed towards Moscow, neither by itself capable of major operations. There is also, however, a deeper cause: the Germans are burning through their cards and are being forced to pause operations. The infantry army from Odessa could have started an offensive into Crimea but did not, and one of the panzer corps in the south could have advanced, but instead was held back. The card cost for both was too high. At the end of the German offensive, the Germans are down to 6 cards in their war deck – a far cry from the 47 with which they started the game.

Still, even if the Germans are not what once they were, it was a turn of major accomplishments: 3 production cities were captured as well as 4 Soviet armies destroyed. Now we turn to the Soviet response to Germany’s Autumn offensive:

Soviet Counter-Offensive, Autumn 1941

So while we have seen plenty of Soviet local-counter attacks against individual advancing German units (indeed, every attacked Soviet unit in the game has counter-attacked, a few times successfully, but mostly not), this is the first actual Soviet offensive of the game.

It started with a Stavka Reserve Committal (the face-up cards near the top-left of the map). These were used to buy a unit as well as to add a powerful card to the Soviet War Deck. The offensive was by two armies against the German center, attacking at different points. The first was met by Army Group Center’s remaining Panzer corps, and would have defeated it, except that the second attack followed, forcing the Germans to break-off and leave the Soviets stopped but not destroyed, and rush off to meet the second Soviet attack. The panzers managed to stop the second attack as well, but again did not destroy the Soviet army and was forced to withdraw. (You can see the German panzer moves with the 3 blue arrows in the center.) Both Soviet attacks had limited, local success but did not affect the overall situation. The only remaining Soviet move in autumn was a redeployment to cover the northern approaches to Moscow.

Again, we’re going to pick up the pace, and take the game all the way up to the end of the 1st Military Phase of Winter 1941:

End of 1st Military Phase, Winter 1941

In the Adjustment Phase of the Autumn turn, the front line was updated as you can see. The Crimea has been cut off from normal overland supply, and is depending on what can be shipped across the Kerch Strait. There are bulges in the south and north front lines representing the Autumn German offensives, while the center is almost the same as the prior turn.

The usual card transfers were made (to the Stavka Reserve, and between the opposing armies’ Production decks). The Germans have reduced the infantry army to levels below what it would need for offensive operations (represented in the game by reducing it to a cadre), which was done to save the cost of maintaining it at that strength.

The Soviets have completed their initial mobilization and only added 1 army to their forces. In terms of production, the loss of 3 production cities hurts, but is offset by the start of Lend-lease and the start of war production in Siberia.

In general, both armies exhausted themselves in the Autumn turn and are only just starting to recover. Both armies are now up to 7 cards, although the Soviets do have an additional stash of cards in the Stavka Reserve. German limited offensives this phase are possible, but in this game the Germans have elected to just try to recover strength.

And I think this is a good point to tie off this blog entry. Next entry, I intend to pick it up with the Soviet Winter Offensive and carry on through 1942. Til Later!

24 December, 2020

Huh. It’s been almost a month since the last blog update. Lots of playtesting and adjustments have been going on, some successful, some not. I thought I would do a big update on the state of the design since 30 October, the last time I really did a big review. (The interim updates were fairly narrow in their focus.)

As we often do, let’s start with the mapboard:

(Click on the image to open the site in its own window.)

The first change to be noted is a deletion:

The above were the Expenditures Play Aids. I became increasingly unhappy with them over time. I just felt that they were too visually complex and obscure. Will they be replaced with improved versions in the future? Maybe. But I have to say I’ve been happier with the map since their removal.

Next up: There have been changes to the decks, some cosmetic, some functional. Let’s start with the German decks, which are (left to right): “Müll” (Junk), “Krieg” (War), and “Produktion” (Production)

If you’ve been following along, this may actually be more confusing than if you haven’t. Formerly, each army had a Discard deck, which used the trashcan icon. The Müll (Junk) deck has the trashcan icon, but it isn’t functionally related to the old Discard deck at all. It is instead a replacement for card elimination, which the last-discussed version had but which the current version does not. More about that later.

The center deck, the “Krieg” (War) deck, is pretty much unchanged. The card icons along the top are for initial set-up, and the table at the bottom is the card suit and value distribution for the game.

And on the right, we have the “Produktion” (Production) deck, which actually is a replacement for the old Discard deck, with a new name and icon, but with little change in function. The play-aid information at the bottom are the starting production numbers for the different countries in the game. (Players reasonably complained about having to count the damn things to get these numbers, so I added the totals here.)

The Soviet decks are pretty much the same as before, except for the change of name and icon for the former Discard (now Production) decks:

One problem the Soviet decks have that the German decks do not (at least not to nearly the same degree) is label readability. German uses (largely) the same alphabet as English and is cognate-rich enough with English that German language labels are frequently readable, but Russian labels are much less so, making the dependence on iconography near total. The production numbers here are a problem: while СССР is intelligible, the other country name labels are much less so.

There are also some significant changes to the map proper. The route lengths in some parts of the board (particularly the western Ukraine) have been lengthened (with fewer positions) so that units can cover a greater distance in fewer steps of movement. For example, the distance from the nearest German set-up position to Dnjepropetrowsk on the lower Dniepr has been cut from 11 route steps to 8. This change makes a big difference in the rate of German advance. Before this change, the Germans really struggled to advance at the historical speeds, but these adjustments really help to bring the game more in line with history.

Once place where the changes are pretty visible is in the area north of Crimea, as you can see below:

V30 Route Sample V39 Route Sample

Speeding up the potential rate of German advance helps with another area of the game: it really puts a lot of pressure on the Soviets to attempt a more active defense in 1941, even though it means that the Soviet units thrown forward will be slaughtered. Something has to be done to slow the Germans down, or they’ll be in Moscow and Leningrad in the summer of 1941 and Stalingrad at the start of fall 1941.

Next up, let’s do a rules walk-through (or at least part of one).

Rule Text Commentary

Same as V30. With a subject as well-know as this one, really the less said the better. It isn’t like I’m doing a game on an obscure 18th century subject like the War of the Austrian Succession or something. For a subject like that, a longer introduction makes sense.

Same as V30, except for being updated for the current map.

One of the chronic irritants to the rules revision process is the need to keep illustrations up to date. Because it is irritating, I generally am fairly lazy and don’t necessarily actually do it for every rules revision, especially when the changes are visually minor and I don’t think it will confuse anyone.

But for you, dear reader of this blog, I am giving you a rules version with an updated map. Because I care. Or am obsessive. Or something.

No substantial changes from V30, though there are a couple wording tweaks.

One problem with the game rules is the distinction between the board and the map. I don’t really use the word “board” in the rules, apart from one usage in the introduction. Generally speaking, I speak of whether things are on-map or off-map. If off-map (like cadres) where off-map they are is significant: cadres in the cadre box have different significance than cadres on the time track.

I have had a playtester question about whether by map I meant the entire board: if I did, then a cadre on the time track was a cadre on the map. This isn’t what I mean, but being asked the question at all has left me a little wary and uneasy. So, I have taken extra pains to clarify that pieces in cadre boxes or on the time track are considered off-map.

More minor wording changes. Perhaps the most significant was to give the Main Front-Line its own sub-section title. The actual rules text in the paragraph is pretty much the same, but before it was labelled Ends and “End” is a word I use in too many different contexts with too many different meanings for it to make a good sub-section title.

Divider guides. (Formerly “printed divider lines”.) What. An. Embarrassment. There was a serious logical problem in the way I was handling them that I never noticed. I had printed divider lines running between routes, and told players to put the divider pieces where the printed divider lines crossed the front line, but the front line could parallel the printed divider lines in odd ways and I never noticed, leading to ambiguous situations where it wasn’t clear where the pieces should be placed, and big dummy that I am, I didn’t see it. For months.

If the section 4 text on divider guides seems a little hand-wavy, it is. Section 25 is where they are really explained. I thought about not mentioning them at all here, but I wasn’t comfortable with burying such a highly visible map feature like that go unmentioned until a late rules section.

Same as V30. At one time, I had an entire section devoted to pockets, mainly because I had the concept of a second kind of pocket: the out-of-supply pocket. One of the more important revelations I had during the design process was realizing that I didn’t need to formally define out-of-supply pockets. All I needed was to identify out-of-supply positions, and I didn’t need a special section for that: the supply rules already had that covered.

This is pretty much the same as V30, with just some wording tweaks.

These paragraphs are basically the definition rules for breakthrough paths: What are they? How are they created? What are their parts?

Months and months ago (long before V30), breakthrough rules were defined in pretty much the way they were here. Then I decided that the only part of them that really mattered was the body positions, and defined the base and head out of existence.

Well, removing the head caused problems. People had a hard time understanding that the breakthrough path of a unit did not include the unit’s own position. So I restored the definition of the head, and things got better.

But, as it turned out, people were also confused that the breakthrough path did not include where the unit was before it crossed into enemy territory. Just not as confused as they were about the head And what’s more, I decided that I did need special rules for the base and restored it as well.

And so, I spent months working to get back to where I started. Good job, me!

And these paragraphs are also pretty much the same as in V30.

These paragraphs are pretty much about the breakthrough path lifetime: how are they maintained and how are they destroyed. (Well, most of how they are destroyed; there are explicit instructions about their removal as part of the process of ending a turn and cleaning up for the next turn that this section doesn’t cover.)

Without a doubt the thing about breakthrough paths that people find the most potentially confusing is that each unit has its own distinct breakthrough path, even if their paths overlapped. If a player doesn’t understand this, then they end up with some idea of shared breakthrough paths whose maintenance becomes very perplexing, because there are no rules covering shared breakthrough paths (because of course there is no such thing as a shared breakthrough path).

Anyway, making it clear that each unit has its own breakthrough path was one of the major motivations behind revisions to these paragraphs during the development process.

Text-wise, this section hasn’t changed much, but all the illustrations were revised when the new suit icons were introduced. The feedback I’ve gotten on the new designs has been pretty positive, which is gratifying. Artistically, I liked the old designs just fine, but as suit icons they weren’t great, and they didn’t match the visual style of the rest of the game. So, out with the old and in with the new.

The first paragraph hasn’t really changed, but we do indeed have changes to the deck list.

My biggest problem with this revision was a name collision. I decided I didn’t want to permanently eliminate cards from the game, that I could put what were formerly eliminated low-value cards to good use. But to keep them I needed a place to put them: hence, the Junk deck. However, the name Junk was entirely too close to Discard, (and so were all the synonyms I could think of) which was a problem.

Happily, the Discard deck always had a dual-life as part of the production system, and so there was an obvious alternative name for it: the Production deck. But that name needed a new icon. Happily, I was already using a factory icon that was closely associated with production, and so it became the production deck icon.

And with the old discard deck icon no longer needed by that deck, it became available for use by the Junk deck. And so, as it was a pretty good icon for it, it was put to that use.

There is one final question that I kind of slur on: there is only one Junk deck in the game, so I don’t need to distinguish between a German and Soviet version of the same deck, yet the deck is much more fully used by the Germans than the Soviets. And so, I never call the junk deck a German deck, but I do use the German color for its icon wherever it is used.

The first four card operations (draw, add, transfer, and shuffle) are all very much what they were in V30.

Discard, however, very much is not. Formerly, it was just the process of adding a card or cards to the Discard deck. Eliminating cards was an entirely separate card operation. Now, what were two separate operations are one operation with two separate destinations, and the operation involves choosing between them.

Because the Production deck is very, very like the Discard deck, differing very little in substance, there isn’t much new I have to say about it.

The Junk deck, however, differs in many ways from the elimination operation it replaces, most obviously being that cards in the Junk deck are not eliminated: they can be returned to play.

In this context, the main differences I want to point out is that the rules for adding a card to the Junk deck are much less restrictive than elimination was: there is no requirement that you have the initiative, the per-turn limit is 3 cards instead of 1, and each player has his own limit independent of the other player.

But before leaving this section, I want to talk about the elephant that isn’t in the room: the War Draw operation that used to take up a large part of this section no longer exists as a thing. At one time, there were a lot of contexts in which a player might make a War Draw, legitimizing it as an operation requiring its own rule. However, over time, the number of context dwindled, and the other day it struck me that there was now just one (War Move momentum), and it no longer made sense to treat it as a card operation per se, and that it instead made more sense to just explain it in the War Move rules.

The main changes to set-up have been changes to the magic numbers as to how many cards of what values go into what decks.

As far as modeling the Soviets in 1941 go, V30 and V39 are on opposite sides of the Great Divide. The Great Divide fell between V31 and V32. In V31 and older, the Soviets got a lot of low-value cards which they could use to create units or hold as cards for operational use however they saw fit. Starting in V32, the Soviets got a lot of units for free (modeling Soviet reserve mobilization) but were starved for cards for operations (modeling their low standard of equipment, organization, and training).

At set-up, the difference is in the number of cards in the initial Soviet War deck. In V30, the Soviets got 16 cards, but in V39, they only get 8.

The difference in cards continues in early turn production. In V30, the Soviets get a baseline of 20 cards in Summer 1941, and 16 cards in Fall 1941. In V39, the Soviets get a baseline of 10 cards in Summer 1941, and 11 cards in Fall 1941. What the Soviets do get in V39 is free units: they can raise 15 units at no cost in cards in 1941. But since they can’t convert those units into cards, the additional units do noting to address their card shortage.

While the card shortage does impair the Soviets, it also increases their vulnerability to German penetrations cutting Soviet front-line positions out of supply, which results in card penalties for the Soviets on the following turn. In the former versions, there wasn’t that much reason to cut the Soviets out of supply; the card penalty didn’t hurt them as badly because they had a lot of cards. But in the current version it does, creating a real dilemma for the Germans as to the merits of pressing forward vs. pocketing Soviet forces. So, I think the new method in multiple ways does a substantially better job of modeling the 1941 campaign than the old.

However, it is a big change, and a lot of playtesting has had to go into making sure that it works properly, but I do think the effort has been worth it.

The sequence of play really hasn’t changed at all between V30 and V39 — not at the top level, at any rate. A number of the lower-level procedures have changed, but probably a discussion of those changes should wait until we reach the sections that discuss those procedures.

The process of calculating production hasn’t change at all between V30 and V39. There have been some changes in production sources: Wien was a production city in V30, but is not in V39, and at Grozny there are now 2 oil resource sites instead of one.

Regarding Grosny, it was a major production site that the Soviets were extremely reluctant to destroy, increasing the German chances of capturing at least some of it in working condition. While Baku was even larger, it was further away from Germany, and for the Germans transporting oil would have become as big a bottleneck as producing it, so I think all things considered leaving it also with 2 sites probably makes sense.

In terms of game play, increasing the production at Grosny was supposed to also be an additional incentive for the Germans to attempt a campaign for the Caucasus, but I can’t say it’s had any measurable impact to date. No doubt in part this is due to the disruptive effects of the changes to the Soviet army in 1941 have had on getting to 1942 in reasonably historical condition. In some games, the Germans have already won, in others, they are too badly beaten to think of such thing. I am pretty confident that those issues will get straightened out and we’ll get a better look at how 1942 plays then.

So, this is the part of the production process where the abstract points calculated earlier translate into cards. If the calculation part of production was fairly stable between V30 and V39, this process was anything but: it changed in almost every rules revision. Let’s walk through it step by step.

Step 1 is where production get converted into cards. This is functionally unchanged from V30 and is quite straightforward.

Let’s move on to step 2 and 3 (we’ll take them together). In this step, cards are exchanged between the discard decks of the opposing armies. In V30, this was a symmetrical exchange: 3 cards were transferred each way> But as of V38, it became an asymmetrical exchange: 3 German cards for 2 Soviet cards. The primary effect of this change is that over time, the German deck size tends to slowly shrink while the the Soviet deck size tends to slowly grow. One secondary effect is that the tendency of the exchange to keep the deck sizes in equilibrium is reduced. With fewer cards moving, differences in quality between the Germans and Soviets become more persistent as entropy between their decks is reduced. Another secondary effect is to increase the likelihood that the Germans will be forced to draw on the Junk deck for cards, thereby setting in motion a decline in the German card quality.

In step 4, the Germans are permitted to transfer up to 6 cards from the Junk deck to bulk up their War deck at the cost of a reduction in German deck quality. This is not something the Germans are likely to do much early in the game, as the quality cost is too high, but later in the game, as card quantity becomes increasingly a problem, low cards can be better than no cards at all, which is a threat the Germans can face later in the game, when losses mount and production declines. A driving reason for this was to allow the game to better model the late war, where the Germans found themselves increasingly forced to send sub-standard units to the front, because it was either those units or nothing at all.

And of course in step 5 the Germans shuffle the war deck. Obviously there isn’t much to say about a deck shuffle per say, but one of the problems throughout the design process has been to keep the number of deck shuffles to a minimum as they slow down the game. The timing of what draws get made from what deck when is absolutely influenced by that problem.

There are no changes between V30 and V39 in the basic mechanisms of unit creation, conversion, and maintenance. The process is the same and the costs are all the same.

The only changes to these paragraphs have been minor wording changes for clarity.

Although there isn’t really anything new here, there are a couple points about this system that I would like to discuss.

The first of these is unit maintenance. The introduction of a war economy into game play without a maintenance system is highly prone to producing runaway growth by one or both armies, which is often dealt with by arbitrary size caps. (In fact, earlier versions of Stavka, where the maintenance rules were functioning poorly, had exactly that sort of problem and dealt with it in exactly that way.) But without maintenance, it is difficult to really capture the dynamic nature of the war economy and the strain a military places on that economy. And capturing that dynamism was one of the fundamental objects of the design of Stavka.

I would not say to have yet fully succeeded in what I’ve set out to do, but I do feel that I am getting closer. I think adding non-linear maintenance costs was a critical step. The game at this point doesn’t have hard limits on unit counts (which I think of artificial and bad, in both game and simulation terms): it simply becomes uneconomical to grow the army below a certain size; the costs of maintenance and operations become so high that there is simply not enough left to also make the army larger.

The second is that the costs are different for the opposing armies, reflecting the differences in the war economies of the Germans and Soviets. Germany had enough technically sophisticated manpower to keep the complex equipment of mobile units operating and of running the demanding kinds of operations that mobile warfare required. However, they lacked manpower overall. The Soviets had the opposite problem: manpower as such was much less of a constraint than technically sophisticated manpower, and it was this shortage, rather than equipment as such, that made it so difficult for the Soviets to compete with anything like equal numbers in mobile warfare against the Germans.

These structural differences in the war economies are reflected in costs: for the Soviets, infantry units are cheap, and the Soviets will tend to rely on them heavily throughout the game, even for offensive action towards the very end of the game. Their armor units will simply not be sufficient in number for them to ever wage the kind of war that the Germans waged in 1941. For the Soviets, they cost too much.

The Germans, on the other hand, will always find it easier to try to keep armor units in the field than the concentrations of infantry that infantry units in the game represent. German infantry int the east was almost always used in supporting and defensive roles than being the main force in offensives, as opposed to the Soviets who did it frequently. When it is hard to get enough infantry to even cover the front defensively, scraping up an offensive concentration of it is harder yet. So the Germans found it historically and so the Germans in the game will find it.

As mentioned previously, Soviet mobilization was introduced between V30 and V39. Earlier versions were a little on the rough side, but I think it is coming around to functioning as conceived.

The first version introduced a fixed number of mobilization units in the summer and fall turns, then none thereafter. In that version, they consumed but didn’t require cadres, which created a perverse result that cadre losses didn’t matter.

The second version required cadres for mobilization, but again had a fixed number of units, and odd things could happen if one turn had a deficit in cadres and another a surplus.

The current version expands the number of turns to include the winter, and rather than a fixed number of units per turn, a total is spread out over the turns according to the number of cadres available. This seems so far to have avoided the major failings of the prior versions. Whether 15 units is the right number of units is not yet entirely clear, but it seems broadly in line with the scale of the historical Soviet mobilization.

Effective control is a section that has been subject to a lot of small edits in pursuit of clarity between V30 and V39, with only one substantial change.

There is only one change that I really want to call out here, and that is that I realized that it had a long-standing ambiguity as to whether, when counting distances to a breakthrough path body position, whether the count should be from or to the breakthrough path. Because the game has routes that are slow in one direction but not the other, the two counts are not necessarily the same.

There is one other thing I want to say about this is that because of the point-to-point network, the disputed control rules are capable of producing odd and unexpected results on a small scale (positions in disputed control you might not expect) but its overall contribution to the game on a larger scale are remarkably positive.

There really haven’t been any substantial changes to the supply rules between V30 and V39, though there have been a fair number of small edits and ordering changes for the sake of clarity.

These paragraphs serve to define how to tell whether a unit or front-line position is in full supply, limited supply (excluding sea supply), or is out-of-supply.

In terms of complexity, they aren’t too bad, although understanding the relationship between disputed control and disputed supply is both critical to proper game play and the least intuitive thing about them. Still, I think on the whole players do pick it up pretty well once they’ve had a little practice.

There is, however, a little snare in here concerning supply across the Kerch Strait. From a simulation point of view, the Kerch Strait rule actually works quite well for a very low complexity cost, but it can be missed, perhaps because the mention of it is so brief.

The sea supply rules likewise haven’t really had any substantial changes between V30 and V39.

One thing about them, though, is there is no question that there are a lot of rules here for a capability that isn’t actually used often in the game; although when it is used, it can matter. A lot.

In spite of the mass of detail here, I’m actually fairly proud of these: they boil down an awful lot of odd special cases from the historical conflict into a pretty cohesive and comprehensible set of rules that, I think, do a good job of producing historically reasonable outcomes.

In V30 these paragraphs included a summary of the various consequences of the different supply states, but in V39 I replaced it with a set of references to the sections detailing those consequences.

I came to have some level of discomfort with summaries as a result of the reception to Bonaparte at Marengo, which included some. There were two problems: some readers didn’t remember the actual rules, they remembered the summaries, which were deficient in details, and other readers were confused and read the rules as being inconsistent.

V30 and earlier versions gave summaries another go anyway, but I have since thought better and instead decided to replace it with what you see here.

In V39 this section is expanded for clarity compared to V30, but in terms of content it is the same, with one exception: in V30, with regard to initiative, on a tie the army that had the initiative at the start of the phase keeps it, but in V39, on a tie the Soviets have the initiative. I think it is better for the game to put the onus on the Germans to attack in order to retain the initiative.

In some of the versions between V30 and V39, the initiative was more important than in either, but a number of the advantages of having the initiative have since been backed out for situational reasons. (For example, eliminating units used to require having the initiative, but adding units to the Junk deck has no initiative requirement. I made the change not because I wanted to de-value the initiative, but because I didn’t want to overly restrict adding units to the Junk deck.)

Because Stavka is a war game, most of the game play occurs in this phase, and, unsurprisingly, the rules governing the military phase are longer than those for the other phases, comprising about half the rule book.

The military phase rules are actually shorter than the corresponding sections in my previous games, but because player actions in Stavka are even more dynamic and more interleaved than in those games, I have seen that players can have difficulty grasping the order in which things are supposed to happen, which has been an area where I think the rules could really benefit if I could improve their clarity in this regard. V39 does take some steps to address this, which will be covered later.

So, there is actually a substantial difference here between V30 and V39. In V39, there is the requirement that a long-distance deployment move cannot both start and end in the enemy home country, a requirement that wasn’t in V30.

The motive for this change was that I thought it was far too easy for the Germans to strategically redeploy within the Soviet Union, especially in 1941. The Germans had chronic problems with the Soviet transportation network, in part (but not only) because of the different gauges used in Soviet vs. German rail networks.

While I had made up my mind to address the problem of excess German strategic mobility, I hadn’t made up my mind about how to do it. Should it be a Germans-only rule? Should it be a total ban? What about the minor powers of Romania, Hungary, et all? In the end, I decided to prevent moves within the enemy home country, but allow entering and leaving, which does leave open making a two-phase strategic move to get from one part of the enemy home country to another: out of the enemy home country in one phase, then back into the enemy home country in another phase. This, however, I decided was acceptable both in terms of history and game play.

There aren’t any substantial changes here between V30 and V39, but there have been edits for clarity, particularly with regard to the sequencing of the declaration and execution of blocking moves, which has been an ongoing source of difficulty in playtesting.

So, the sequence write-up in V30 was really minimalist, but in V39 steps 5 and 6 have been expanded to make it easier to understand the order in which things happen when a move is blocked, and how it differs from when a move is not blocked. This is, incidentally, brand new in V39; the last version released to playtesters is V38 – even they havent’t (yet) seen this.

V39 does have a substantial difference here from V30 in that V39 allows counter-attacks with a different suit assignment than that of the target unit (forbidden in V30), but at a -1 momentum penalty. The motive for this change was to protect players with a bad suit distribution for where they are being attacked from being quite so defensively helpless, which has been an occasional problem in playtesting.

So, remember way back when, in discussing section 7, and I said that the War Draw as a distinct operation was dead and that the content of the rules had been folded back into the Momentum Draw rules? Well, here they are.

This reorganization has two main advantages in clarity: First is simple co-location; players don’t have to jump to a different section on a different page to read the rules for momentum draws. The rules are right here in the flow of what they are already reading. Second is the removal of an abstraction layer.

So, what do I mean by an abstraction layer? An abstraction layer is a shift in terminology between contexts. The War Move rules have a “front assignment”, which was abstracted in the V30 War Draw rules into a “target front”. So, to use the War Draw rules in V30, the player had to know to map from the one term to the other, which was a learnability problem that isn’t really about learning to play the game, but was instead about learning to read the rules.

The most pernicious problem caused by the abstraction layer for War Draws was the default War Draw value of 1 on a failed War Draw. This did indeed mean that even without drawing a card, a unit could still have a momentum of 1, but it was a translation from War Draw to Momentum Draw in which players had low confidence, if they fully realized it at all. Hopefully, subsuming the War Draw rules into the Momentum Draw rules will resolve that problem.

Another clarifying change to the Momentum Draw rules concerned when the card face is shown. In particular, I wanted to ensure that players understood the timing of revealing the Momentum card vs. enemy blocking move decisions. This is another aspect of trying to improve the clarity of the rules regarding timing: what things happen in what order.

The rule in the third paragraph wasn’t there in V30, and looking back, I don’t know why it took me so long to add it. Its effect has been dramatic, and in a good way. Breakthroughs have become pretty paralyzing to enemy movement (which they always should have been), making the game both more historically accurate as well as more interesting to play. And the rule isn’t even complicated. So, a total win.

Remember back in the discussion of section 5, when I talked about the need to have Breakthrough path base positions as a formal term? Well, part of the reason is right here: preventing the enemy from entering breakthrough path base positions.

There was a nasty problem in rules prior to V30, which I thought I had adequately fixed, of single units making shallow breakthroughs aimed at the base of deep enemy breakthroughs, cutting them out of supply with devastating effect. This tactic had the unhappy combination of being both ahistoric and extremely effective, and it grossly distorted game play: to the extent that it could complete wreck games.

Anyway, in a playtest game between V30 and V39, it climbed out of its coffin, not nearly as dead as I had thought, and was used again, every bit as ugly as I remembered it.

Well, this change is another nail in that coffin. Together with a parallel change in section 25, that is one tactic I hope never to see again.

The rear area rate rules I don’t think have changed at all since V30. I worried a lot about these rules in the months prior to V30, because of the fractional-movement rate thing, but by the time of V30 the rules actually seemed clear enough that people were managing them ok, and these rules have not been a source of trouble.

There haven’t been any substantial changes here between V30 and V39, but there have been clarifying changes around three problems:

First, 0-distance moves. In V30, the rules made it clear that entering an enemy-occupied position started or continued a battle, but what if the unit was making a 0-distance move where it started in an enemy-occupied position? The rules were not as clear about that as they should have been and I have since made their handling explicit rather than leaving it as something for players to infer.

Second, front-line attacks vs. enemy unit attacks. With two different triggering conditions for attacks, the way I had the rules organized there were some rules where structurally it might look as though they applied only to the latter and not the former, which I have sought to address.

It wasn’t clear when attacks and counter-attacks were actually executed. A paragraph was added specifying that each unit executed its attack or counter-attack as part of executing its move.

No substantive change here since V30, but I have edited the wording repeatedly. I’m not sure, however, that I’ve made it in any way clearer; just different. In any case, it hasn’t been a trouble area, so I could be fussing over nothing. Or it just could be that people haven’t paid enough attention to it to really get confused...

There haven’t been substantive changes to this section since V30, but V39 saw a major re-organization of this section. Most significantly, two subsections have been introduced: Declaration and Execution, intended to map onto steps 5 and 6 of the war move procedure.

In terms of clarity, how to execute war moves when blocked has undoubtably been the biggest issue with the rules. There have been more questions about it, more confusion, and more unintentional rule breaking than almost all of the rest of the rules combined.

Some of it, to be sure, is due to repeated changes made to this process earlier in development, but even after the rules stabilized, confusion persisted.

The fundamental complexity is due to the fact that it requires the players to understand three large rules sections, those on War Moves, Blocking Moves, and Battles, all of them pretty thoroughly before it all hangs together. And that is just a lot of rules, and there is no prior game that basically has the same system, so everybody approaches it as a novice.

One thing I had pinned a lot of hope on was the detailed, half-page example sequence in section 18, but either players haven’t attempted to use it for that purpose or didn’t find it helpful. Either way, though, the example didn’t solve the problem players were having.

And this is where the re-organization comes in. My current hope is to make the joins between the three sections clearer, so that players could more readily understand how to execute the entire thing in the right order. I do think that once players absorb how to do it, it actually plays pretty smoothly, but absorbing it is a challenge.

In any case, this is where I am for now. V39 is brand-new, so nobody has yet seen it. Hopefully it will at least be the framework for making this part of the game more learnable. (It is of course far too much to ask that V39 work as-is. Major rules revisions pretty much always produce some issues, even when the net effect is good.)

These rules are unchanged since V30, but I don’t think I’ve ever really reviewed the battle rules before, so let’s take a clean sheet of paper approach in reviewing all of section 18, and go more slowly than we have before.

The three central concepts of the battle rules in Stavka are that battles take place in a single position, take place over time, and are fought in rounds, where each round is the result of a unit attack or counter-attack.

I’m very sure that the extended nature of battles is neither new nor unique with Stavka. I believe, in fact, (but having only read the rules and never played it) that Eastfront does something similar. How many other games might have used similar systems I don’t know, but I find it very hard to believe it could be zero.

Ultimately, battles are resolved by a numeric score, and each attack or counter-attack adds to or subtracts from that score. The attacking army wins on a score of 0 or greater, while the counter-attacking army wins on a score of less than 0. So far, so good, I think, the battle rules are, to this point, quite straightforward.

Nothing good, however, lasts forever, and the actual battle resolution procedure does have some wrinkles, even if nothing especially complex.

The first wrinkle is the introduction of something called resistance, briefly alluded to as part of the rules for attacking across the front line, but here fully developed. Resistance is nothing more or less than opposition to momentum: An attacker gets to increase the score by the unit’s momentum, but resistance to that momentum subtracts from the score. Similarly, a counter-attacker gets to decrease the score by the unit’s momentum, but resistance to that counter-attack subtracts from the score.

There are two kinds of resistance:

The previously alluded to front-line resistance, which subtracts 1 from the score. (There is actually no such thing as front-line resistance to a counter-attack as counter-attacks do not cross the front line, so all front-line resistance is, by definition, resistance to an attack.)

The other type of resistance, and much the more complex of the two, is infantry resistance. Each infantry unit can (potentially) resist once per battle, but not having moved that phase is a requirement for infantry resistance. So, infantry is stronger when it can defend in-place, and weaker when it is forced to move.

There are a couple of additional complications to infantry resistance.

The first is that it is must be applied when the infantry’s army is losing the battle, and can’t be applied otherwise. The reason for making this algorithmic approach was just to simplify play: allowing players to choose when and when not to resist was found to be something of a headache as each unit had to be tracked. When it is algorithmic, it is generally possible to know just from the state of the battle whether infantry resistance had been applied or not.

The second complication is that infantry resistance is normally worth only 1 point, but in capital cities it is worth 2 points. Originally there was a wider range of possible infantry resistance values for different types of positions, but it was found that there really only the capital cities needed special treatment for good simulation results.

This is, as its name suggests the set of rules governing the end of a round of battle.

The first case it deals with is when the round was a blocking move counter-attack, but after the counter-attack is executed, the attacker is winning the battle. There is provision that allows the blocking army to immediately make another blocking move. One thing that makes me a little uneasy is that the rule doesn’t explicitly say that the blocking move has to be another unit. Now, there is definitely a rule saying that a unit can’t make more than one War move in a phase, but I am concerned that I am leaning too hard on that rule here. In theory, I shouldn't have to say it here because I’ve said it elsewhere. But I have learned that people don’t always do a good job of apply rules that to a situation if they are in a physically distant part of the rule book, so I may do better to revise this.

The second case deals with when the counter-attacker is losing and there are no more blocking moves to be made. In that case, the battle is over and resolves as a loss for the counter-attacker. This is pretty straightforward, I think.

The third case deals with when the counter-attacker is winning. The counter-attacker can choose to resolve the battle as a loss anyway (armor sometimes benefits from blunting an attack, then retreating back so as to be able to do something else later in the turn). The more normal case, though, is deferred resolution. The attacker could bring another unit in, wait a phase and attack again, or just wait and resolve the battle as a loss at a more convenient time. The ability to defer battle resolution is a major feature of the game and typically happens multiple times a turn.

This is the battle example, on which many authorial hopes were placed and which haven’t ever really been realized.

As mentioned before, this was supposed to really help the reader put it all together and see how war moves and battles worked in an integrated manner. Judging by the questions I receive from playtesters, it just doesn’t do that.

But let’s walk through it anyway, and I’ll talk about what the example is supposed to do.

Step 1 demonstrates declaring an attack move.

Step 2 demonstrates the declaration of a block move.

Step 3 demonstrates the first part of the execution of a blocked move: moving first the blocked, then the blocking unit to the battle position.

Step 4 demonstrates the next part of the execution of a blocked move: an attack by the blocked unit. This also demonstrates how both attack momentum and front-line resistance to that attack work in executing a round of battle.

Step 5 demonstrates the last part of the execution of a blocked move: a counter-attack by the blocking unit. This demonstrates how counter-attack momentum works in executing a round of battle. Also demonstrated is that as the counter-attacking army is winning, there is no forced immediate resolution.

Step 6 demonstrates a delayed renewal of the attack later in the same round after some indefinite period of delay. It also demonstrates an infantry attack, and an attack that follows a prior breakthrough and thus doesn’t have to fight through front-line resistance to get there. (The enemy front-line is already defeated on that route.)

Step 7 demonstrates a battle carried over in the 2nd Military Phase, the ability of armor to make two war moves in the same turn (something that infantry cannot do), the ability to declare 0-distance moves, which commonly occurs in battles that carry over between rounds, and the ability to block a 0-distance moves.

Step 8 demonstrates another attack, this time at 0-distance and so with full momentum.

Step 9 demonstrates another counter-attack, and also demonstrates infantry resistance, which the German infantry is eligible to perform, having not moved this phase, as its move to the battle position was in the prior phase.

At this point, the battle example proper is complete, but this example is picked up again and continued in the rules for battle resolution.

The example contains demonstrations of all the major elements of battles and movement into battles and how they relate to each other. What it does lack, however, is any sort of intentional context: it shows the Germans doing this and the Soviets doing that, but it doesn’t explain why they would choose to do these things. It is possible that its failure as a teaching tool is connected to that, but I admit I am not sure.

As with the battle rules, I haven’t really presented these rules before, and so again will walk through them fairly slowly.

The bulleted paragraphs to the left serve to describe when a battle is to be resolved. Later paragraphs in this section take up the subject of how battles are resolved.

The first bulleted case is actually ones we just saw in the Battle end-of-round rules. If the counter-attacking army is losing at the end of a round, and isn’t eligible to, or chooses not to continue a battle with a blocking move, the battle is immediately resolved as a counter-attacker loss.

The second bulleted case is likewise one we just saw in the Battle end-of-round rules. If the counter-attacking army is winning at the end of a round, they can choose to resolve the battle immediately as a loss rather than continue it.

The third bulleted case covers how a deferred battle gets ultimately resolved: by means of a Battle Resolution Action, which was mentioned way back in section 14, but about which nothing much was said between then and now.

And finally, the fourth bulleted case refers back to break-off moves, which were discussed back in section 16.

To the left is the outline of the procedure for resolving battles. The ordering is simple: first do the losing units, then do the winning units.

For the loser, the per-unit result is situational. Worst-case is elimination, the fate of units that are out-of-supply. Next worse is reduction to cadres, which is what happens to in-supply infantry and in-supply armor that can’t execute a legal retreat. And best case, only for in-supply armor, is to simply retreat. The unit stays on the map and lives to fight another day.

For the winner, the last unit to arrive at the battle gets to advance. This is a concept that has proven problematic from a player learning point of view, as we will discuss later.

To the left is the outline of the procedure for resolving battles. The ordering is simple: first do the losing units, then do the winning units.

For the loser, the per-unit result is situational. Worst-case is elimination, the fate of units that are out-of-supply. Next worse is reduction to cadres, which is what happens to in-supply infantry and in-supply armor that can’t execute a legal retreat. And best case, only for in-supply armor, is to simply retreat. The unit stays on the map and lives to fight another day.

For the winner, the last unit to arrive at the battle gets to advance. This is a concept that has proven problematic from a player learning point of view, as we will discuss later.

Retreat rules are always a bit of a challenge because of their tendency to produce odd effects. This is especially true in area and point-to-point movement games where the geometry varies from one part of the map to another.

In earlier versions of the game, the retreat distance was tied to the battle score. This, however, could produce issues with unreasonably long retreat distances resulting. In later versions, the retreat distance was just locked at 2, with a +1 adjustment to 3 if necessary to get across a slow route.

The rule that retreats are not technically a move is an important one. It would be very bad if players attempted to apply the rules for moves to retreats.

Handling of retreats from breakthrough units is one of those things that seemed easy, but turned out to have a lot of issues to consider when the breakthrough unit was cut off from supply. In such a case, should it be able to retreat down the breakthrough path of a different friendly unit? One of the reasons this was particularly troubling was because early versions of the game had too many sneaky ways to cut breakthrough units out of supply. It was really by fixing that problem that the breakthrough unit retreat problem simplified to what you see here.

In friendly territory, there were a lot of possibilities I went through, but happily, once the retreat distance was set to 2, and I no longer had to consider very long retreats, there was less pressure to add complexity to improve the results. And so you see what we have here. It isn’t perfect, but it works well enough: it is reasonably simple and odd retreat results don’t significantly hurt game play.

The advance rules have been surprisingly vexing in terms of learnability. Surprising because there actually isn’t that much to them.

There have been two persistant areas of misunderstanding and uncertainty, both contradictory. One is the idea that an advance move has to follow an enemy retreat move. The other is the idea that if the unit was blocked and then advances, that it has to follow the previously declared movement route before it was blocked.

Both of these ideas are examples of imaginary rules, rules that the players think might/should be there, even if they never read them. What makes them particularly pernicious from a rules point of view is that there is nothing in the rules that is the basis of the misunderstanding: it is all in the head of the player. But that doesn’t mean that the rules can ignore it: rules have to deal with players as they are in all their messy human glory, not with some imaginary players from the designer's imagination. And so, the third paragraph is designed to head off at least one of them.

It is the above problems that the last paragraph to the left is intended to fix.

The battle resolution example is a continuation of the battle example from the previous section. By doing this, I wanted to show an example of an entire (and fairly complex) battle from start to finish.

Step 1 explains why the battle was resolved, and also shows the reduction of the German infantry. (The illustration of the reduction may be a bit much.)

Step 2 shows the German armor retreat and the explains the options for that retreat.

Step 3 is, I admit, not much of an example of an advance as it really just explains the options for the advance. It does, however, show the map appearance after the German units have all been handled, including the removal of the German breakthrough marker.

And here I’m calling it quits for this blog entry. It has been very long, long enough I hope to at least partly compensate for the delay in posting since the last entry, and I hope it has been interesting. Until later!

24 November, 2020

So I thought today I would pick up pretty much where I left off last time: talking about the creation of the Stavka map. Last time we talked about elevation, but this time I thought I’d talk about hydrology: oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers.

(Click on the image to open the site in its own window.)

Whereas the story of how the elevation layer was made was fairly complex, the hydrology layer was not. It was mostly just tracing over my primary source map, selected sheets from the 1:1,000,000 International Map of the World.

(Click on the image to open the site in its own window.)

as you can see below, in this close-up of the mouth of the Volga:

Now the main features of the hydrology of this part of Europe will be well-known to the readers of this blog: the Baltic, Black Sea, Caspian Sea, and its major rivers, such as the Volga, Dnieper, and Danube. But there is a feature that I think deserves some attention but which is much less noticed and remarked upon: the stippling of lakes caused by the last great ice sheet of about 33,000 years ago, the line of which is about here:

North of that line, what you have, apart from the Scandinavian Mountains, is generally flat, with poor drainage and often with poor soil. In its natural state, that which isn’t forest is typically lake, pond, or marsh. Apart from the large trading cities on the Baltic coast, population densities tend to be low, due to the difficulties in farming much of the land, generally due to the effort required for drainage. (Lithuania, for example, is one of the most heavily drained countries in the world, with 47% of its total land and 87% of its arable land artificially drained.)

In game terms, what the glacial line means is that the terrain north of it, unless heavily drained, tended to be quite difficult for military operations, something we will come back to later in this series when we talk about how Stavka’s route system was created and how it models terrain.

And for now, of course, we can put the elevation and hydrology together:

As for next up, my current thinking is to talk about land use. But we’ll see. In any event, for now, ’til later!

23 November, 2020

So, I thought that today I would talk about how the map for Stavka was created, because it is (I think) an interesting story. Let’s start with the elevation layers:

So: How did I make this? Did I hand-draw it all? No. No, no, no, no. I had done that for my previous games, but this looked like a whole ’nother level of effort, and I sought an easier way.

The starting point of the easier way was here:

(Click on the image to open the site in its own window.)

From this site you can download global digital elevation data. The data comes in blocks. I downloaded two: one bounded by 40°N, 90°N, 20°W, and 20°E, and one bounded by 40°N, 90°N, 20°E, and 60°E. Each block includes a set of header files explaining what the hell it is, and a big file containing the data, and, oh, also a thumbnail image that gives you some visual idea of coverage:

(Click on either image to download the files for that data block.)

Now, using this data for my purposes was going to be some work. (Bear in mind that the above image is not the data. The actual data is a binary file representing a grid, where each elevation point in the grid is represented by a two-byte signed integer.) Using this stuff would clearly require some programming. Happily for me, programming is something I have a lot of experience doing.

And so, I wrote a program.

The first order of business was to get the data into memory. This was a pretty easy task:

Now, the above isn’t a super general-purpose piece of code. I didn’t bother writing code to read in the header files and use it to understand the data, I just hard-wired the header file info into my program. The above code builds the file name, opens the file, checks to make sure it is the right size, reads it in, then swaps the bytes (Big-endian vs. Little-endian.)

Next, we gotta process the data to get it closer to something we can actually use to build the map elevation image. And that’s this guy’s job:

Let’s walk through it. The first thing is that we don’t need all the data in the block. Most of it is actually outside the map bounds, so we set up limits to ignore most of it. Next, we get to the main business: we’re going to loop through the data, an outer loop for each data row, then an inner loop for each data point in the row.

The most important job of this function is transformation. The Stavka map is a conic projection, and the elevation data is a latitude/longitude grid, so we need to translate between the two models: to figure out where on the Stavka map each elevation data point lies. And so, for every data point, we call this:

One of the great mis-conceptions non-programmers tend to have about programming is that it is very mathematical. Well, some of it is. Most of it, however, really isn’t. Software engineering is mostly analysis: taking a large, poorly defined problem and iterating on it, breaking it down into a series of ever-smaller, ever-better-defined problems, until finally you have problems so small and so well-defined you can explain to a computer how to do it. And back in the day doing that sort of analysis was very much my thing.

Even if not all programming is mathematical, however, some of it definitely is. Like the above function, for example. If analysis was my thing, math never was, and I really don’t enjoy the sort of coding in the above and find it a grind. (Fun fact: I flunked Calculus and with that my math education ended.)

Anyway, what the above function does is determine where on the Stavka map a particular elevation data point is going to fall.

Which brings us back to the double-loop function, which now knows where on the Stavka map the elevation data will go.

So, what does it do with it? Well, it is going to build a graphic image. It uses the three color channels: the green channel will be used for elevation data (after converting it from 16-bit data to an 8-bit form matching the elevation bands we want on your map), the blue channel for ocean, and the red channel for the latitude and longitude grid. A visual version of what we are producing (after processing both data blocks, and after more cropping, which comes later) is this:

(Click on the image to open the site in its own window.)

The above image, however, isn’t actually used in map production. Its job is to let me verify the accuracy of my code by giving me something I can overlay on top of this, which was the master source map for the game:

(Click on the image to open the site in its own window.)

Once validated, the real work was done by breaking the elevation data out into separate images, one for each elevation band in the game. The function that controlled that process that was this:

The function has a list of output files. For each file, it calls a filter function to remove unwanted data, and a write function to put it into a file. The filter function is here:

And the write function is here (one note: the output file format is a thing called PPM, which is a dead-simple graphics file format with no compression. Ideal for lazy programmers like me. I don’t leave it that way, though, because the files are huge and not a lot of programs can read them. I use Photoshop to convert it into GIF files.)

Anyway, you can see what the output files look like below:

Below Sea Level 100 Meter
200 Meter 300 Meter
500 Meter 700 Meter
1000 Meter 1500 Meter
2000 Meter 2500 Meter
3000 Meter

Each of the above images is the source for a map elevation layer. There is, however, still one thing to do. The source image pixels are large enough to be visible if directly used. Which is bad. So, what has to be done is to convert them into more curved shapes in order to get a more natural appearance. The method is through Adobe Illustrator, which as a Trace Image function and a Simplify Path function. After a little tweaking with both, the raw image data gets translated into something that looks more map-like, as you can see in the close-up below. (This is from the below-sea level data, which was the pixellated of the elevation layers and which took the most work to get into a usable appearance.)

Original Smoothed

And thus, one by one, each elevation data file image was converted into a Stavka map elevation layer, as you can see below:

Below Sea Level
100 Meter
200 Meter
300 Meter
500 Meter
700 Meter
1000 Meter
1500 Meter
2000 Meter
2500 Meter
3000 Meter

And then the different layers combine to form the elevation layers for the Stavka map, returning us to where we started today:

And here is where I think I will leave it off for today. It feels like a long enough blog entry; I hope it was interesting. Anyway, til later!

16 November, 2020

So, how about a card design update? I’ve been working on new suit icons since (it seems like) forever, on and off (more off than on – much more off than on, actually), but I finally have something to show you. So here you go:

Before discussing the changes to the icons in the current design, let me refresh your memory with the icons from the old design, to make it easy to see the changes:

The old design had an ink-and-watercolor quality to it that the new design does not have. The new design has simplified strokes that are stronger, and lack the hand-drawn quality of the old design. The colors are bolder as well. You might also notice that the typeface used for the numbers has changed, in thematically the same direction: bolder, cleaner, less quirky. The new design overall is intended to be less artsy and more (ahem) iconic.

Regarding the subjects of the different suits, three are the same as before (the cruiser Aurora, the Yak-3, and the tractor from the Stalingrad Tractor Factory) while one is new: the Kremlin has replaced St. Basil’s. The Aurora and the Yak-3 each have a new view angle: the Aurora barely so (the new angle puts the eye at deck level rather than the waterline, but is otherwise quite similar) and the Yak-3 very much so. The old Yak-3 design left me with an icon that was very wide compared with its height, which had proved a recurring nuisance in layout. The new one corrects that issue and brings its proportions more in line with the other icons. The tractor has the same view angle as before.

I hadn’t at first meant to replace St. Basil’s, but I found that when I tried to draw a new version of it, something in me just didn’t want to do it. I would sit down, draw a few strokes, and then feel the powerful urge to do something else instead. Because of that, literal weeks went by and all I had was a partial outline. I finally decided that I needed to change the subject. At the rate I was going, it was going to take me longer to draw St. Basil’s than it took to actually build St. Basil’s.

So, I decided to try the Kremlin instead. The problem with the Kremlin is that it’s really big. I thought of maybe a map-style image, but rejected that as it was too different than the other subjects. So, a section of the Kremlin seemed more like the way to go. I originally tried a strong perspective angle that emphasized the wall, but thought it ended up looking visually too much like the Aurora, and not very Kremlin-y. Really, I needed one of the towers, but a problem with the towers is the aspect ratio is really bad for a suit icon (much too height, not nearly enough width), so I decided to include a section of wall. I ended up going with the Spasskaya tower, the most recognizable of the Kremlin’s towers, but I actually cheated a little: the height of the wall in the suit icon is actually too high compared to the actual Kremlin. I did this because I just needed more visual mass, and the heightened wall made the image more imposing, which I thought was desirable.

Anyway.

So what else has been going on? Well, mostly playtesting and rules refinement, which has been the case the last couple of months.

A particular focus of the last couple weeks has been trying to get the Soviet army to work right in 1941. This has always been an issue in the design. As I’ve mentioned before, the basic modeling of the Soviet army in the game is in its mid-to-late war organization and capabilities, but it was such a different beast in 1941. In some versions of the game, the Soviet army has been too strong, in others too weak, but it has never really quite had the right feel. The current game has tried to represent it (in game terms) as unit-rich but card-poor. It has quite a few units, but not really enough cards (much less good cards) for it to operate those units effectively.

The main way this has been achieved is to basically create a separate system for the creation of Soviet units (called Mobilization) that doesn’t use the card economy production system to bring units on the game. In previous versions, the production system allowed the Soviet player to balance the number of units and cards, but I thought maybe I would try forcing an imbalance. What I want is the feeling of an army that is big, able to take enormous losses and keep fighting, but just not very good. So far, I think the unit-rich and card-poor model is promising, but it still almost untried and will need to be put through its paces for a while before it can really be determined how effective it is at modeling the Soviet army in 1941.

I think I’m going to wrap this one up here. (Short, I know, but they can’t all be epics.) Til next time!

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