THE 'STALINGRAD' NOTEBOOK: DEFENDING THE MOTHERLAND



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'

Avalon Hill published STALINGRAD almost five decades ago, in 1963; however, unlike most of their other games from the same period — such as D-DAY and AFRIKA KORPS — Charles Roberts' treatment of the Russo-German War (Tom Shaw and Lindsley Schutz, although generally given design credit, actually developed the game) received a surprising amount — given that this was still the very early days of wargaming — of uncharitable criticism from history-minded gamers right from the beginning. And while no one that I know has any idea whether these complaints ever had any effect on anyone in Baltimore, it is instructive to note that Avalon Hill did not get around to offering even a few minor tweaks to the STALINGRAD game rules until 1974. This means, in short, that the STALINGRAD we play today is virtually unchanged from the version that first appeared over forty-eight years ago: a testament, I suspect, more to Tom Shaw's stubbornness than to the "ageless" quality of the game's design. 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

When it comes to most games nowadays, players who are new to a game typically develop their initial ideas about defensive arrangements using a mix of guesswork and intuition, and then refine them over time through trial and error. Such, however, was not precisely the case with Shaw's and Schutz' final treatment of the Russian Front. Instead, STALINGRAD differed from most other early Avalon Hill titles — D-DAY probably being the most notable exception — in that the game's developers included a suggested opening set-up for the defending (Russian) player. This Russian set-up, although riddled with weaknesses, was a welcome starting point for most freshly-minted Red Army commanders, myself included, because it allowed neophyte players to move quickly from the rules into the actual play of the game. In short, for most new players, it helped shorten the game's "learning curve" substantially. As might be expected, of course, most players — once they had gained some familiarity with the flow and tempo of the game — quickly abandoned the "suggested" Avalon Hill defense in favor of their own preferred starting set-ups. In my own case, by the time I had completed my second face-to-face match as the Russians, I had already begun to think about ways to improve the standard AH defense; and, in this, I was certainly not alone. In fact, as time went on, there soon seemed to be as many different Soviet starting set-ups as there were individual players.

Not surprisingly, some of the Russian openings that emerged during this period turned out to be a bit eccentric: Tom Oleson (for reasons I am still not clear on to this day) liked to set up one of his two 7-10-4s between the Finns and Leningrad prior to play; even more unorthodox was the Russian strategy of one of the Roberts boys (I can't remember which one) who dispensed with the idea of the strategic defensive completely and opted instead to immediately hurl the Red Army straight into the teeth of the Wehrmacht in a do-or-die effort to capture Warsaw during the first few turns of the game. The Oleson defense inevitably elicited a surprised — alright, stupefied — look from his German adversaries; the "On to Warsaw" strategy, on the other hand, tended to provoke a look of horrified disbelief on the part of Roberts' opponents, particularly if the first few rounds of Russian attacks went well. Other players, as might be expected, took slightly different approaches to defending the sacred (cardboard) soil of Holy Russia: some Soviet commanders attempted to bait their German opponent into committing too much Axis armor in Rumania (see Gary Gygax' "Southern Gambit" for an example of this approach); other wily Russians laid enticing traps near Brest-Litovsk in the hopes of setting-up surrounded counterattacks against an overly aggressive foe (e.g., George Phillies and the "MIT Group"). However, in spite of their oftentimes notable differences, what virtually all of these different Russian defenses had in common was a strategic distribution of forces that hearkened back to the old AH "suggested" Russian set-up. That is: a relatively brittle "crust" defense on the main front which, in turn, made it possible for the Red Army to mass a powerful attacking force (usually eight to ten rifle and tank corps) adjacent to the Finnish border. The appeal of this aggressive/passive Russian strategy was obvious: by attacking and eliminating the isolated Axis units in the northern enclave during the first few game turns, the Soviets could permanently eliminate the backdoor threat to Leningrad and still wind things up in Finland in time to shift their recently-victorious units west before the Germans succeeded in gaining a lot of ground against the main army. The logic of the "Finland First" Russian approach (at least during the sixties and early seventies) seemed inescapable: it wasn't particularly elegant, but it worked; and for most players, that was enough.

"Something Wicked (or at least Unexpected) this Way Comes"

Briefing Soviet soldiers.
Of course, just because something is popular doesn't mean that it is universally accepted. Such was the case with the Russian "Bash the Finns" opening: it may have been widely-accepted, but there were, starting in the 1970s, a few devious STALINGRAD players who, dissatisfied with the status quo, were already beginning to reexamine the central tenets underlying the "standard" Russian defense with an eye towards overhauling it completely. The product of their efforts, when it ultimately appeared, represented a radically different approach to the defense of the Motherland. Many of these new defensive arrangements differed from each other in some of their particulars, but their similarities far outweighed their differences; and by the mid-seventies, the diabolical fruits of this band of paradigm-shifting "deconstructionists" had begun to show up in PBM and tournament play. The "Hyper-Modern" Russian defense (in all its many permutations) had been born.

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.

German cavalry, World War II.
For those readers who are either unfamiliar with STALINGRAD or are a little rusty when it comes to the rules, the Russians begin the game with thirty-four units totalling 220 defense factors; the Germans, for their part, start with fifty-nine units totalling 247 attack factors. On the May 1942 game turn, the Axis player receives six additional units (worth 18 attack factors) for a grand total of 265 factors. These totals, however, are somewhat misleading, particularly during the first few game turns, when the front is both narrowly constricted and segmented. The segmented aspect of the front comes from the fact that, prior to the start of play, the Axis player must allocate forces to three separate and initially completely independent battlefield sectors: Finland, which starts with 14 factors, but which will usually be reinforced to a maximum of 22 factors; Rumania, which will usually require an Axis investment of at least 68 attack factors; and the main(Polish) front, which, after the afore-mentioned force allocations to Finland and Rumania, will have only 157 attack factors (give-or-take) remaining with which to assault the main Russian line during those game turns when the Red Army is at its strongest. Different STALINGRAD players may quibble about the above values, but, on the whole, I think that they are generally representative of expert play. Thus, if only because of simple arithmetic, the effect on the Russian defense of an additional four to six corps immediately becomes obvious: German attack strength (taking into account the units that will likely be immobilized along the Hungarian border on the first game turn) will total approximately 217 factors; facing this Axis hoard, however, will be a formidable force of 195 Russian defense factors. Even worse, on turn one, almost all of the Soviet units will, because of terrain, be doubled on defense. Whatever the long-term advantages might be to the Axis of maintaining a presence in Finland, the fact remains that a twenty-two factor edge in combat power is considerably smaller than the 40-60+ factor advantage that the Germans typically enjoy when facing the "Bash Finland" Russian set-up. Needless-to-say, these values are not, from the standpoint of the German player, particularly encouraging. Unfortunately, the numbers are not the only reason for the German player to be concerned. Certainly, the narrowing of the Axis combat power advantage on the main front is bad enough, but it is not the only (or even the primary)   obstacle placed in the path of Axis offensive operations by the Hyper-Modern defense: in reality, the challenge posed by this alternative to the old "Finland First" opening is not how many extra units the Russians have on the Polish and Romanian borders, but where precisely those units are deployed that really makes this opening a serious test of the German commander's skill. In fact, it is the "don't give an inch" aggressiveness that characterizes the Hyper-Modern defense, probably more than any other feature, that really sets it apart from virtually every other Russian opening set-up that I have ever encountered. Thus, it should probably come as no surprise to my readers that as soon as I sat down and began to study my long-ago STALINGRAD tournament foe's unorthodox defensive arrangements, I was immediately struck by the sheer "in-your-face" psychological pressure created by the Russian dispositions. Certainly, I was dismayed by what I saw confronting my "at start" forces; secretly, however, I was also very impressed by the message that the opening sought to convey.

The "Nuts and Bolts" of the Hyper-Modern Defense

Russian mixed column.
It's been a long time, but I think that I was half converted to the new Russian set-up before either I or my opponent had moved a single piece. Looking back, what was both most interesting and most troubling to me — and I suspect would be for most other German players in my position — was that my Russian opponent had pushed his front line forward to occupy terrain that, under ordinary circumstances, I would have expected to be uncontested. The audacious Russian occupation of three hexes, in particular, struck me as being the most problematic to my first turn operations: U18, CC14, and LL14. Each hex presented its own unique set of challenges. U18, for example, could be attacked at reasonably good odds, but really required a soak-off if the attack was to gain any ground. CC14 was not nearly so cut and dried: it could be attacked at low-odds, or it could be — assuming I was prepared to risk both heavy soak-off losses and an immediate and powerful counterattack — attacked at higher odds with a guarantee that at least one German panzer unit would be adjacent to Brest-Litovsk at the end of the German player turn (but which would almost certainly be gone by the end of the Russian player turn). This was actually a real quandary because, when it came to CC14, the one option that I felt was not feasible was for me to ignore the Russian outpost altogether: as long as the Red Army occupied CC14, any Russians defending behind the northern end of the San River would be doubled on defense. Then there was the Russian stack on LL14. At the best of times, the Romanian front is typically a problem for the Axis player. The Hyper-Modern defense just makes the German problems more difficult. The Russian garrison in LL14 can be attacked from one hex at low-odds, or from two hexes at higher odds; the problem with the second attack is the very large soak-off investment that is required. The Axis could well win the battle, but because of crippling losses, leave the Soviet position in the far south virtually undamaged and, even worse, all but immune to follow-up attacks until forces from the Polish and Romanian fronts linked up. As I looked for weaknesses in the Soviet position, I quickly noticed another feature of my opponent's set-up that I had initially missed: besides the absence of "low-hanging fruit" (I estimated that I really had a good chance of destroying only one 2-3-6 and, depending on my stomach for soak-off losses, one or two 4-6-4s), there were virtually no attractive low-odds attacks available against traditional first turn targets like S18 or Brest-Litovsk. The longer I looked at the map, the more I liked(perhaps, envied is a better word) my adversary's defensive arrangements. In all my years playing STALINGRAD, I had never before run into anything quite like the set-up in front of me; two things, however, were already clear to me: I loved the new approach to the Russian defense; and I couldn't wait to spring it on one of my regular opponents as soon as I got home!

German planes bound to bomb Soviet cities, June, 1941.
Since this is not an "After Action Report", I will not bore my readers with a detailed account of my first outing against my opponent's Hyper-Modern strategy, except to note that, although I ultimately captured Leningrad and Moscow(with a lucky one-to-one and two-to-one, respectively), I never got anywhere near Stalingrad. As for the rest of the tournament, it is pretty much a blur. The one thing that I took away, and the one thing that really made the whole experience worthwhile for me was that I had been, for the first time, treated to a completely new way of playing the Russian defense. And although I had a long return drive when the tournament broke-up Sunday afternoon, I broke my STALINGRAD game out just as soon as I got home and had unpacked. That first night, tired as I was, I began to experiment with my own version of the Hyper-Modern defense. This process of experimentation, once begun, would continue, off and on, for several years; but by 1978 I finally settled on the Russian defense that suited me best. I have used the same set-up, virtually without alteration, ever since; and, although I cannot claim that it is the very best of the many versions of the Hyper-Modern defense, it has always worked for me.

A Few Final Thoughts

Having 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.

Although this point should be obvious, it is nonetheless probably worthwhile pointing out that the Hyper-Modern defense, whatever its strengths is not going to appeal to every STALINGRAD player. Every gamer is an individual, and because a player's choice of a defensive set-up is influenced, not only by his skill level and experience, but also by his preferred style of play, the Hyper-Modern defense is just not going to appeal to everybody. Moreover, while the Hyper-Modern has become steadily more popular with experienced players over the years, there are more than a few STALINGRAD experts (Tom Baruth and the Bakulski brothers come immediately to mind)  who have tended to stick with the traditional "Bash Finland First" strategy when playing the Russians, in spite of the increasing popularity of the newer, more aggressive style of opening. In the end, of course, it all comes down to personal taste; however, speaking for myself, I have used the newer, more aggressive defense for over thirty years now and, in all that time, I have never seen any reason to discard it in favor of another approach. Anything is possible, but somehow, based on the hundreds of STALINGRAD games that I have played during those many years, I don't really think that I ever will.

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11 comments:

  • first of all taking leningrad and moscow is impressive against any defense! i often post to the stal and ak board and believe there is no "perfect" defense,just as there is no "perfect" offense. the key to stalingrad for the axis is the choice of which low odds to attack and where to take them. i have a regular opponent on zt that has a "hyper" defense in the area of finland that IS very effective,but this leaves a "hole" in his defense-i just have not found it yet! thanks for the posting-anything new regarding this great classic is always welcomed...

  • Greetings Brian:

    My victories against Leningrad and Moscow might have been a little more impressive if I hadn't been forced to resort two low-odds attacks in both cases.

    So far as the issue of "perfect" defenses go, I agree completely. My main purpose in reviewing the two primary strategic options available to the Russians (of course, multiple hybrids of the two are also available) was the illustrate the fairly significant break in thinking between the "Bash Finland" and the Hyper-Modern defenses. That being said, different players will weigh the advantages and shortcomings of the two defensive approaches based on their own theories about the game. A conservative player, for example, might well prefer the "Finland First" set-up; a more aggressive, counterattack-oriented player (like me, for instance) will probably accept the increased vulnerability of the Finnish position in exchange for the opportunity to counter-punch the Germans on the main front.

    Finally, thanks for your kind words. I will probably do a whole series of short essays on STALINGRAD, if for no reason that there are a number of features of this old "clssic" that I still find interesting.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • What can one say but it's a Classic! Old and outdated but still something from our youth that's still fun to play. Plus it spawned more variants then anyother game.

    Glad to see brian posting/ out faithful S-Grad devotee from Consimworld ;)

  • Greetings Kim:

    Yes, STALINGRAD still has some appeal to a few of us (as a game, of course) even after all these years. It is one of those titles that I will leave on the shelf for years at a time and then take down and play a whole series of matches, one after another.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • any new articles would be great joe! i think i may be both the ultimate stal neophyte and supporter (defender) i recently played a pbemail game of TRC 4th ed. for the year 1941-i much prefer stalingrad, lol! i "see" how trc is a classic,but in some strange way i still believe stal is the ultimate STRATEGIC "game" of the eastern front. the freedom for both players in the initial set up is part of this. the size of the mapboard is also a factor. and the monthly (as oppossed to trc "bi-monthly") turns are the factors in stal's advantage. it may be better described as a simulation of ww1@2-or put another way-"strategic game of german invasion of russia pre-1950's/20th century" AK is more "elegant",which i do love,put stal is the ultimate puzzle of a game-gaming's "citizen kane" hi kim,btw! p.s. for the record after over 3,000! gms online,i'm still finding new moves in spi's napoleon at waterloo! so cheers for the "classsic's"!!!

  • Greetings Brian:

    You'll be happy to know that I plan on adding a few new essays to the "STALINGRAD Notebook" series starting in the relatively near future. I still have some loose ends to clear up after my long pause in blogging, but there are a number of misconceptions about STALINGRAD that, so far as I am able, I intend to clear up.

    Your opinion of TRC is not really very different from my own. The advantage that TRC has over STALINGRAD -- at least in my view -- is that it is both much more dynamic (the panzers actually get to advance after breakthroughs) and the actual play of the game is somewhat easier; that is: lines of attack and intermediate objectives tend to be easier for both players to spot.

    In the case of STALINGRAD, the game suffers from two major problems: first, there is very little movement of the front during the early game turns; and second, successful German play is much more difficult to master. What I mean by this second point is that very few German players ever become skillful enough in their offensive play to put themselves into a competitive position in the middle game where the game tends to actually be won or lost in "expert" play. This is really too bad because, in my opinion, STALINGRAD does not really reveal its potential as a game until the Wehrmacht has crossed the Dnepr on a broad front and in strength, usually in the winter of 1941/42.

    So far as PBeM games go, if I ever get some of my long term projects caught up, maybe you and I can try a game or two of STALINGRAD. It might be a good opportunity to find out what I actually know about the game versus what I "think" I know about STALINGRAD.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • love to play you joe! my prefered (read:only system i can manage besides hexwar) is zuntzu-it has very nice/map/counters by john cooper. trc is a great game-more people would prefer the porshe 911 over the porsche 356;personally, a 356 coupe is my dream car! same as with stal. i do REALLY hate the 2 month thing of trc-the mind (mine) just does not work is 2 month blocks.....

  • Greetings Brian:

    Capital! I will use our future games as an incentive (I often promise myself a reward for completing some project I am having difficulty with) to finish my very long essay -- I am presently up to the 1300's so I still have a ways to go -- on the "true" history of wargaming.

    Regarding ZunTzu: I am familiar with the system and have used it in previous PBeM matches, so it should be no problem.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • very good!! it should be helpful to the articles-i am a relative newbie who (as my consim posts reveal) that is trying to look at the game in new ways and i am still in the early phase of learning the games many nuances. re:Hyper-Modern defense-2 things-first, the bash finland works against beginners and probably medium level players: Hyper-Modern defense is the game at a very high level.second,starting in the 1980's with the publication of ICEBREAKER there has been a theory that the reason the soviets suffered such heavy initial lose's is that they were in a OFFENSIVE position-like a boxer leaning forward which in some ways is the Hyper-Modern defense! lol again showing that STALINGRAD is a game:super-realistic simulators look elsewhere! i do contend that the game does give players the "feel" of being in charge of the campaign. after many years both the Avalon Hill and SPI classics still do this better than the younger, "prettier", "smarter" simulations. best way to reach me is to leave a msg at my boardgamegeek address. cheers!

  • Greetings Brian:

    Regarding "Icerbreaker": there is certainly some evidence that Red Army planners contemplated an offensive move against Hitler if, as they hoped, the Wehrmacht became bogged down in a war of attrition against the "Entente" forces in France and Belgium. However, the utterly unexpected collapse of Allied defenses in France -- which had been based on a "linear" World War I approach -- shocked the Russians and convinced them that their original frontier defenses were inadequate and that they should redeploy into a deeper "layered" defense. This probably explains the virtual abandonment of the "Stalin Line" and the terrible Soviet losses during the first weeks of Barbarosa: many of the units in the western military districts were in the process of redeploying from one defensive stance to another when the Nazis struck in June.

    Your contact idea sounds fine; what I will probably do, at some point, is "friend" you through Consimworld Social the next time I get over to that site.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • ok you you can reach me there as well. yea, the soviets were definitely caught "off foot"! it is an intriguing idea of stalin attacking but probably wrong.

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