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One of the few good things to result from my recent computer woes was that my unplanned-for break from blogging allowed me to spend some time (thanks to my wife's computer) visiting a number of my favorite wargaming sites. Of special interest to me during these visits were the board game forums at Consimworld that deal with "classic" titles: particularly very old games like STALINGRAD and AFRIKA KORPS. And yes, although it may come as a surprise to many of my readers, both the STALINGRAD and AFRIKA KORPS forums continue to be surprisingly active, with a fairly steady stream of new contributions coming in regularly from both experienced and not-so-experienced voices, alike. Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to the reason for this post. One of the discussions that particularly caught my attention was one that was initiated by a series of questions from several different neophyte STALINGRAD players seeking the forum community's general views as to the most effective German and Russian strategies for winning the game. This piece, along with others that that I hope to post under the 'STALINGRAD NOTEBOOK' rubric in the future, is an expansion on some of the comments that I first offered on Consimworld's STALINGRAD forum in answer to these questions. Moreover, given that the early game turns of STALINGRAD are largely shaped by the defensive choices of the Soviet player, I have decided that a short discussion on how expert views on the problems and goals of the Russian defense have evolved over time might be the perfect place to begin my series of essays on this venerable old Avalon Hill "classic"; I hope that you, my readers, agree.
A Brief Look Back at the Evolution of Russian Defensive Play in 'STALINGRAD'
Today, the game still has a small but dedicated following, even its most fervent fans will admit that STALINGRAD has more than its share of quirks. Nonetheless, since I have already dealt with many of the main characteristics of the Shaw-Schutz design in previous posts (see links below), I will not launch into a full-blown description of the game and its various foibles here; suffice it to say that STALINGRAD — viewed purely as a historical simulation — suffered from three serious defects: first, the Orders of Battle were either grossly inaccurate (in the case of the Axis), or pure fantasy (in the case of the Russians); second, the game's combat system (because of the absence of "overruns") made break throughs virtually impossible; and third, the weather rules, unbelievable though it may sound, penalized the Russians (particularly during the critical first winter) far more than the Axis. Needless-to-say, given its numerous conceptual flaws, STALINGRAD was — even in the eyes of most of its fans — a complete failure as a vehicle for modeling the first two years of the Russo-German War. The game did, however, have two things going for it: for starters, STALINGRAD was the only commercial board game on the Eastern Front available in the years immediately following its release; and (perhaps even more importantly) it was, judged purely as game, an exceedingly interesting puzzle, particularly when viewed from the perspective of the Axis player. This last is important because it largely explains the game's ongoing appeal (even today) to a small, but loyal group of STALINGRAD aficionados, this in spite of the veritable tsunami of better-crafted, more historically-plausible East Front games that have been published since STALINGRAD first saw print, oh so many years ago. And there is something else: this first commercial game on the conflict in Russia during World War II, like the other early Avalon Hill titles, also trails in its wake a huge body of written lore; and I have a sneaking suspicion that this wealth of game literature has probably been a factor in convincing at least a few young gamers to fly against popular prejudice and to give this venerable, if somewhat antiquated, old "classic" a try. It may be a lousy historical simulation, but — in my view, at least — it is still a fascinating game. That being said, and having catalogued STALINGRAD'S most obvious faults, I will finally let go (for the time being, at least) of any further general discussion of the game and turn my attention, instead, to a brief consideration of the conduct of the Russian defense in STALINGRAD, and of its gradual evolution over time.
The Shaw-Schutz "Bash Finland" Paradigm
"Something Wicked (or at least Unexpected) this Way Comes"
For many players, the first encounter with this new Russian strategy was a bit of a shock; but whether in a PBM match, or face-to-face in a casual game or in a wargame tournament, based on my personal experience, it tended to be memorable. In my case, I first encountered a version of the then brand-new Hyper-Modern defense sometime in the 1970s while competing in a small weekend "classics" tournament; and ironically enough, I ran into it almost as soon as I signed in with the tournament organizers and drew my opening round opponent. My first match, as might be expected given the gist of this story, was in STALINGRAD. Because both I and my opponent wanted to play the Russians (what are the chances?), sides were rolled for: I got the Axis. Since my adversary needed a few minutes to set up his units, I got up from the table and drifted over to visit with some of the other tournament attendees. When I returned to the table a few minutes later, I received a nasty surprise which, while not quite as gut-wrenching as my first encounter with the Roberts "Red Army Captures Warsaw" strategy, was pretty unnerving, nonetheless. In essence, what I saw when I resumed my seat was that my opponent, instead of massing an overwhelming force against the Finns, had stripped the Finnish Front of all but four corps; every other unit in the Red Army was manning the Polish and Romanian borders. Although I wasn't completely clear what the long-term effects of my adversary's set-up would be; I was certain of one thing: the effects wouldn't be trivial. This statement, I suspect will make a lot of sense to any grognards reading this piece; for inexperienced players, however, probably not so much. So to actually illustrate why all this is important, I think it would probably be helpful to digress briefly and shift our focus(momentarily)to a consideration of the strategic situation confronting the German player just prior to the start of the game.
The "Nuts and Bolts" of the Hyper-Modern Defense
A Few Final ThoughtsHaving read this far, I am sure that there are any number of grognards who are saying to themselves (quite rightly, I might add): "Hey, wait a minute, I and my friends were using Russian set-ups very similar, in many of their basic elements, to the Hyper-Modern approach long before the mid-seventies!" And they would be right, up to a point. However, what really sets the Hyper-Modern defense apart from all other types of Soviet openings is that it combines the maximum possible concentration of Soviet rifle strength along the Polish and Romanian borders along with an ultra-aggressive forward placement of the Russian starting line. It is this "in your face" deployment that I believe, more than any other single factor, ultimately separates the Hyper-Modern Russian player from all of his many competitors.
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Or Why Does Bad Luck Always Seem to Come in Threes?Based on my recent posts, I suspect that some of my regular readers are beginning to wonder why, if my computer problems have at last been resolved, I have been so slow to resume my usual pace of blogging. The answer to this question, I'm afraid, is that (proving, I suppose, that there really is no fool like an old fool) I suffered a major bout of heat exhaustion several weeks ago, and I am only now beginning to regain both my mental and physical stamina. Looking back, I am still amazed that, having spent decades working under the blazing Arizona sun, I could have allowed myself to succumb to such an easily preventable malady.
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Thoughts About "DonCons" Past, Present, and FutureThis past Sunday, August 7th, was the final day of the 2011 WBC Convention; and, I confess that a wave of nostalgia washed over me as I watched the minutes slowly tick by on Sunday morning. Assuming this year's convention followed the same course as those of the recent past, I knew that things would probably limp along to a close for the last die-hard attendees by about noon. In my mind's eye I could see the main gaming areas, no longer teaming with attendees, but with a few isolated pockets of players here and there still surrounded by the signs, "kiosks", and other paraphernalia left over from the convention. By mid-morning, of course, the hotel staff would begin the process of tearing down and stacking the banquet tables and chairs that had, only hours before, been the focus of days of intense gaming activity. A few players, I was sure, would hang on to the absolute bitter end: I well know the urgency felt by many of those last few convention holdouts as they desperately tried to get in just one more game before packing up and beginning their individual journeys home. I know all this, in spite of the fact that I was unable to attend this year's gathering in Lancaster, because my own convention-going experiences have all followed pretty much the same general pattern over the years: exultation and excitement upon first arriving at the convention site; but then followed by a gradual and inexorable (day-by-day) slide into an unshakable funk by the morning of the last day. The experiences of other wargamers may vary (particularly for those who attend more than one or two conventions a year), but that is the way it has always been for me; and I really don't expect it to change.
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