TRICKS OF THE TRADE: SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR BALANCING 'STALINGRAD'

Avalon Hill’s STALINGRAD turns forty-six this year. What takes me aback is that this classic game was published during my junior year in high school. It really makes you think.

Of course, that was then, and this is now. You rarely see anyone with a copy of STALINGRAD under their arm anymore, even at war game conventions — especially at war game conventions. And that’s too bad. In its day, it was one of the most popular games ever. Then John Edwards’ THE RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN came along: it was the beginning of the end for the game in the red, white, and black box. Game design and “Stukas” had pushed it aside. And that wasn’t the end. After THE RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN appeared, a number of other, newer titles were quick to follow. All of these new games also dealt with the Russo-German War, and what’s worse, in most cases, they did it much better than STALINGRAD. Where once there was only one game on the Eastern Front, now there is a glut. I admit it, after BARBAROSSA, WAR IN THE EAST I & II, RUSSIAN FRONT, 1941, DNO/UNT, EAST FRONT, and FIRE IN THE EAST/SCORCHED EARTH, I stopped paying attention. Don’t get me wrong, I have played most of these newer games, and I even like some of them quite a lot. But I still have a soft spot for STALINGRAD.

The biggest appeal of games like STALINGRAD, I suppose, is that many of the people who played these old Avalon Hill classics spent enough time leaning over the map board to really master their favorite games. When you sat down across the table from another experienced player, you could usually count on an interesting and challenging match. This type of expertise also showed up in print. And while there have been a number of very good essays in the various gaming magazines about many of these newer titles, I still remember the articles in the General on STALINGRAD by writers like George Phillies from MIT. I guess that I just miss the “good old days.”

Russian machine gunners

Still, my nostalgia doesn’t blind me to one of STALINGRAD’s biggest flaws: play-balance. A player can shrug off the primitive graphics and the simple mechanics of the game system: Chess, after all, is pretty simple too. But the fact remains that traditional STALINGRAD, when played by experts, has about a four or five to one bias in favor of the Russians. The Germans can still win playing the standard 2nd edition game; it is just very hard. So, given that fact, what’s a STALINGRAD player to do?

The short answer, of course, is to change the game’s rules. Not surprisingly, efforts to rectify this obvious shortcoming have produced, over the years, an amazing number of different suggestions for balancing out the poor German odds so that both sides would have a reasonable chance to win. I have experimented with more than a few of these different play-balance options, myself. Unfortunately, I never quite found one with the mix of historical plausibility (logical camouflage) and play-balance that I was looking for. None the less, it doesn’t hurt to try, so I am going to take this opportunity to revisit this issue one more time.

What follows is a series of different play-balance options for evening up the odds in STALINGRAD. I confess that I have play-tested two of them extensively, and one I have barely tested at all. For simplicity’s sake, I will begin with my own favorite option and then consider the alternatives that — for me, at least — appear to be less appealing.




Hitler and members of the Oberkommando des Heeres

STALINGRAD Play-Balance Option #1: The Historical (sort of) Option

The Germans begin the game with ten replacement points accumulated. They receive replacements at the normal rate of four factors per turn beginning in July ’41, except during April of both 1942 and 1943, at which time they receive ten replacement points instead of their usual four. The Russian replacement rate remains normal, and follows the standard 4-5-6 pattern of increased production. In addition, the game does not end at the conclusion of the May ’43 game turn, but continues through the Russian portion of August 1943.

Rationale: The absence of operational reserves for both the German and Red Armies is simply not supported by the historical record. Putting aside the issue of the Red Army — play-balance is the goal, after all — German reinforcements and replacements, in actual fact, increased fairly significantly in anticipation of both the ’42 and ’43 summer campaign seasons. If we assume that each replacement strength point is roughly equivalent to 12,000 men, then the proposed adjustments in German replacements seem to be fairly reasonable. Moreover, the arbitrary decision to end the game in May of 1943 looks a lot like a misguided attempt, on the part of the designers, to “fiddle” the Turn Record to make the game more competitive. Historically, there is absolutely no military justification for “pulling the plug” on the Wehrmacht in May of 1943. Operation Zitadelle (Kursk) did not even begin until July 4th, and had it been successful in pinching off the Kursk salient, the follow-up German combat operations required to liquidate the Russian pocket would have continued well into August. Furthermore, Shaw’s argument that the OKH was overly concerned about Allied plans against Italy just doesn’t stand up to careful scrutiny. The Salerno landings did not even occur until September, and even at that late date Hitler had still not chosen between the two competing strategies of Field Marshals Rommel and Kesselring as to how Italy should be defended.

Probable Effect on the Game: This option will tend to produce a much more traditional STALINGRAD game. Because of their increased replacements, the Germans will tend to be a little stronger in ’42 and ’43, but not markedly so. Its main appeal is that it will tend to discourage the Russian player from abandoning Moscow in the late stages of the game and falling back on that old Soviet stand-by: setting up a last-ditch, hedgehog defense around Stalingrad while a single lonely Russian sneaks ever deeper into the Caucasus.

STALINGRAD Play-Balance Option #2: The “Replacements” Option

This is the simplest option for all concerned. The Russian replacement rate remains unchanged. The German rate beginning in July ’41 is eight replacement factors per turn; it changes to six points per turn in January ’42 and remains at this level through the balance of the year. Beginning in January 1943, the German replacements are finally reduced to the regular four factors per turn through the end of the game in May 1943.

Rationale: Historically, this option really only makes sense in that it recognizes the steady consumption of the manpower resources of the Third Reich as the war continued and the military demands from other fronts increased. Basically, its primary appeal is that it is the easiest to implement; it also represents a nice reverse symmetry with the periodic increases in Soviet replacements.

Probable Effect: This option can create real problems for the Red Army once the Wehrmacht gets across the Dnieper. All of those additional German replacements can mean that the Russian player will have to face a Wehrmacht that is at virtual full-strength in 1942. It can be very nerve-racking, particularly if the Axis player is methodical in his advance, and is rolling moderately well.

STALINGRAD Play-Balance Option #3: The “Initiative” or “Vanity Roll” Option

This option can either have the most decisive effect on the game, particularly in the first turns, or it can be the most inconsequential. Replacements for both armies remain at the standard levels, and the game length continues to be twenty-four game turns. The change is that, during any of the clear turns of 1941, the German player may preselect three battles for special “vanity” die rolls. He may choose to use all of these rolls on the same turn for different battles, one at a time, or some mix thereof. The way it works is this: the German selects his battle, but before rolling he declares the “vanity” option and instead of rolling one die, he rolls two. He then implements the results from whichever one of the die rolls he prefers. In 1942, the German player may use the “vanity” option during clear turns only twice, and in 1943, only once.

Rationale: The best case that can be made for this rules change is that it recognizes the significant tactical and operational superiority of the Wehrmacht during the first few years of the War in the East. Moreover, this option also does a much better job of duplicating the German Army’s offensive momentum during the summer of 1941, than does the Standard Game. In purely player terms, it will usually mean that critical river defense lines are breached much earlier than in the regular game, and that the chances of the dreaded A elim in a 2 to 1 versus a doubled 7-10-4, decline from one chance in six, to one chance in thirty-six. Of course, if the German rolls badly, it pretty much doesn’t matter; but then, that is the case with the Standard Game, anyway.

Probable Effect: This is the option that is most unstable in game terms. If the German has even modest luck, the Wehrmacht should be able to push forward much more rapidly than in the Standard Game. That being the case, the Russian player will usually not be able to pursue a passive “delay and defend” strategy; instead, he is going to have to fight for his key river lines and cities, particularly in the early going and particularly in the north. If he does not, the Wehrmacht is probably going to show up on the outskirts of Leningrad in 1941, just about the time that the rivers and lakes freeze. When that happens, it is pretty much all down hill for the Russian from there on out.

These three play-balance options do not even begin to cover the many different recommendations that have found their way, over the years, into different war gaming magazines and newsletters. However, they do provide a couple of ways by which those players — who, like me, still have a soft spot for STALINGRAD — can breathe some new life into this classic old title. For that reason, I hope that at least some of you, after reading this post, will pull out your old STALINGRAD box, dust it off, and give one or more of these options a try.

5 comments:

  • Excellent! I LOVE this! This is why I still read old issues of the General and Moves magazine: articles by people who KNOW the game on an almost elemental level, offering to share the knowledge they gained by playing game after game after game.

    I have a notebook of EVERY Stalingrad article from the General. THIS set of articles just got added to it! GREAT INFORMATION - short, sharp and READY TO USE! THANK YOU!!!

  • Joe and I have played Stalingrad well over a dozen times since we first met at AVALONCON. It remains one of my all-time favorite games and I THOUGHT I was a darn good Stalingrad player -- until Joe started showing me some of the advanced tricks I had never learned. We had a series of about a half dozen email games that we played over the period of about a month last year and if my memory is correct, the Russian player won 5 of (and yes -- it was Joe whom achieved the one German triumph. I will also tell you all that Joe does not confine his play to the tactics that have appeared in print. He is not afraid to go against the "consensus" opinions on play -- and I have yet to find a good way to overcome his Finish strategy. But even more frustrating, I have not been able to duplicate it with the same degree of success with which he plays it.
    We did discuss these play balance options at the end of our 6-game set -- but then work intervened on me and has kept me swamped in recent months -- so I have yet to try any of them out. I suspect they will all work quite well because Joe is arguably the best player of AH classics I have ever met.
    To the best of my knowledge, Joe has never been published in the General -- yet he has taught me more about Stalingrad, Afrika Korps, and Waterloo than all the articles combined. Joe -- perhaps we need to find a way to convince you to do a series replay?

  • Joe, Scott -

    Re-playing moves of a Series Replay of a Stalingrad game between the two of you would be a GREAT way to spend my hotel nights on the road!

    Or, if you'd prefer, you can each send me the moves with yor commentary, and I can match it together and hold it until you are finished.

    Of course, knowing the two of you, I could post it real time for the rest of the world to watch, since neither of you would read the other's comments in play if that was the agreement!

  • My point is: I'd gladly do whatever is needed to facilitate a project like this. I have webspace available and skills in ePublishing. All the two of you have to do is find time to play the game AND place comments. However, realize I am NOT the neutral commentator - I am CERTAINLY not qualified for that! But any other way I could help, I'd enjoy that immensely!

  • Russ, Scott:

    I would gladly start a STALINGRAD Series Replay with Scott --- we almost did an AK Replay for the "General" many years ago. A lot, however, depends on Scott's currently very hectic work schedule. None the less, the minute he feels that he wants to give this project a shot, I am more than ready to go.
    Joe

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