The first hex and counter war game I bought and played was A Victory Denied, a follow up to AVL from about 10 years ago. I hated it, and wrote off hex and counter games for about another year. The victory conditions seemed off, the combat was ok but not that interesting and the whole thing just seemed to lack any hook. I assumed hex and counter games were only popular with nostalgic old men and I’d stick to card driven or block games.
Sometimes I get this urge to East Front. Had it about 2 months ago, asked around and ended up picking up SCS Autumn for Barbarossa and A Victory Lost.
A Victory Lost is actually great, and for good reason spawned a system that will soon include a reprint of Konigsberg, a game on Narwa and the whole of Barbarossa.
This is operation Uranus through to Von Manstein’s vaunted back hand slap in the winter of 43, in Ukraine post Stalingrad. Units are divisional or bigger and the hook is the game uses chit pull. Chit pull has been around since the 80s but was really popularised by Ted Racier’s WW1 games, and to a lesser extent this game. Each side has several army HQ chits around the map. Each of these has a corresponding chit placed into a cup. Each round in a turn a chit is drawn, that HQ activates and he can activate all of the counters (regardless of historical formation) with a certain radius. The Russians get one Stavka chit that allows them to move everyone and a few turns in the Germans get a couple of Von Manstein chits that allow then to reactivate any HQ they wish. The ultimate effect is you are never really sure who is going to move when. This creates a tension that scuppers plans and creates opportunities. In AVL it also creates an interesting resource limitation. Most turns the Germans in particular won’t move large parts of their force, but they need to pull back to key defensive lines. Who do they throw under the bus? Or whom do they think can sit tight another turn?
Not every chit goes into the cup, both players select a varying number of chits, so there is an element of pre-turn planning, and weighting of the cup. Do they throw in extra HQ chits that are close to each other to try and raise the odds of moving first in that area?
Like a lot of east front games this is a race. The Russians want to sweep aside the axis allied divisions and race through to the Dneper and capture key VP cities before the Germans can get organised, the Germans want to fall back, concentrate their forces and exploit the few SS and Panzer divisions to counter attack where the Russians have over stretched. Both sides are going to have to gamble.
There are two contentious aspects to this design, first this is a design for effect game. What I mean by this is, some of the rules are slightly ridiculous on paper but achieve the right look on the map. For example a combat unit can be activated each time a HQ in range activates, consequently some units may move and fight, 2, 3 perhaps even 4 or 5 times in a turn. Another unit might not do anything. It’s a fairly simple game, so this can be seen as an abstraction of supply and command but it also could create situations where one unit fights several major battles in a 10 day turn. This does work in the games advantage for the Germans. If they get boxed into one area their HQs get closer and overlap and they can activate their elite units again and again leading to a natural back hand blow occurring.
The second criticism that can be leveled at AVL is its length and competitive nature. Playing quick this could be done in 5 hours, perhaps less, but I think this is unlikely. Other than the chit pull this is a very low randomness calculative game. The CRT runs off a single D6 and essentially guarantees success at 4:1 odds, favors 3:1 and will likely produce bumper cars results or nothing at lower ratios. Any units that retreat through a ZOC take a hit so smart play is to surround units and force retreats. This leads to a lot of hex counting to optimize movement. Combine this with the limitations on pre planning that chit pull produces and you’re going to see a lot of pauses in the action whilst competitive players think out their activation.
Whilst this is a relatively simple ruleset it hits a lot of the quintessential east front narrative beats really well. You may well get encirclements and escapes, SS Wiking might get cut off below Rostov, the axis allied nations will probably get liquidated, there will be break outs, and most probably an armoured German counter attack. The design actively facilitates this narrative through how it varies the German chit draws and feeds in reinforcements. The use of the rail lines for bring on reinforcements and the key river crossings also brings out these historical dilemmas.
This was printed back in 2006 but it probably belongs in a top ten list for east front games. Copies are still kicking about.