THE 'STALINGRAD' NOTEBOOK: "BARBAROSSA" REDUX



In my first "Notebook" essay on STALINGRAD, I presented a brief overview of the two main approaches developed by Russian players — one early on, one later — to deal with the particular challenges (and opportunities) that were and are an integral feature of the Soviet strategic situation prior to the German player's opening moves. In this second installment of "The 'STALINGRAD' Notebook", I take a look at the changes in German tactics that have developed in response both to the improvements in Russian opening set-ups that started to appear in the 1970's, and to the far more effective (and nuanced) middle and late game Russian positional play that, as time went on, began to accompany those "stronger" openings with greater and greater regularity.

INTRODUCTION

Charles Roberts' (Thomas Shaw and Lindsley Schutz, although generally given credit for the design, were actually the developers) game of combat on the Russian Front, STALINGRAD — except for a few post-publication rules clarifications that first appeared in The General and then were formalized in 1974 — is pretty much the same game today as it was when it first saw print over four and a half decades ago. Yet, while the basic architecture of STALINGRAD has really not changed over the years, the way skilled competitors approach the game has changed, and changed significantly since its introduction in 1963. Of course, after taking into account the minor rules modifications that have appeared since then, the main explanation for this evolution in competitive play is that, as time has gone by, STALINGRAD players have become much more sophisticated in their understanding of the game. And the result of all this has been that, for those of us who still enjoy this classic, the game has become both far more difficult to play well and much more interesting. Roberts' eccentric take on the War in the East may be getting a bit "long in the tooth"; nonetheless, it still has the capacity both to entertain and surprise, even now. Which brings me, in a roundabout way to this current set of STALINGRAD essays: in the first installment of this series, I described the evolution that Russian play underwent from the time of the game's release up to the present; in this essay, I will attempt to do the same thing for German play. However, it should be understood that these two essays are not intended to stand independent of each other; and that the evolution of Russian and German play really needs to be viewed as being inextricably linked; that is: the changes that I will be describing, both in how STALINGRAD was once played and how expert players approach the game today, actually represent a sort of ongoing creative "arms race" between the ideas of the best Russian players and those of their most skillful German adversaries. And as long as there are gamers who continue to play STALINGRAD, I expect this process to continue.

GERMAN OFFENSIVE STRATEGIES IN THE BATTLE FOR RUSSIA

It has been well over four decades since I played my first few games of STALINGRAD; nonetheless, I can still remember my cringe-worthy mistakes (both, alas, with the Russians and with the Germans) and the sheer carnage in the majority of those long-ago matches. Part of the explanation for the heavy casualties that tended to characterize most of my early STALINGRAD games can, of course, be chalked-up to a lack of any serious appreciation of the strategic subtleties and underlying dynamics of the game on either my part or that of my opponents. This obliviousness to the deeper possibilities of the game's design, however, was not the only factor that, in the 1960's and early 1970's, tended, in match after match, to lead to a mass migration of German and Soviet counters from the game map to their respective "dead piles". In addition to widespread player inexperience (or ineptitude, if you prefer), the flow and tempo of STALINGRAD play in the very early days of the hobby was also colored by two very different factors which — because they both heavily skewed the game in favor of the Russians — tended to steer more than a few experienced German players towards a strategy of combat-based attrition, particularly during the early turns of the game. The impact of these two factors on the early play of the game probably cannot be overstated; therefore, I think that before preceding, a short discussion of the STALINGRAD back story and of the two game elements that so heavily impacted the game's early play is probably in order.

Early Play-Balance and the Genesis of the Blitzkrieg Strategy

The first of the two "pro-Russian" factors mentioned above was baked into the game by its designers from the beginning: this was the original "historical" Russian Replacement Schedule of 4-6-8. [Avalon Hill very early on, it should be noted, included an errata sheet of sorts — the notorious "pink sheet — which offered players the option of playing with what would ultimately become the standard among experienced players, a 4-5-6 Soviet replacement rate; however, this "option" was initially resisted by most Soviet players (for obvious reasons) and did not become widely-used until some years after the game's introduction.] Given that the Axis replacement rate was (and still is) four factors per game turn, it was abundantly clear to anyone who played STALINGRAD more than once that the longer the game continued, the greater the impact that the Soviet replacement rate had on play. Since most German players could do simple arithmetic, it was obvious that — assuming average combat losses for both armies — Hitler's Wehrmacht was never going to succeed against the Red Army if it waited around for three-to-ones; instead, the chances were good that if the Germans opted for a conservative approach that they would be swamped by hordes of resurrected Soviet units by early to mid 1942. Faced with this unpleasant (if inescapable) reality, most German players (me included) opted to attack during the early game turns with something bordering on total abandon. The theory that most of us used to justify this "all out" offensive strategy was a simple one: if the Germans were to win, they would have to place their faith in the die and hope that lucky combat results would cripple the Red Army enough to allow the Wehrmacht to gobble up significant amounts of Russian territory, particularly during the critically-important 1941 and early '42 game turns. Of course, even back then, different players had very different ideas when it came to the execution of this German approach (there was, for example, the "Leningrad First" strategy, the "Minsk-Smolensk-Moscow" strategy, and, for those players who felt really lucky, the "Fall Blau in '41" strategy). Nonetheless, two major objectives tended to take center stage over and over again when it came to this brand of Axis play: the first of these objectives was for the Germans to destroy as many Soviet units as possible, as quickly as possible, (particularly the two hard-to-replace 7-10-4's and the single 6-9-6); the second goal, which was considered to be even more important (if more difficult) than the first, was for the Axis player to capture at least one of the three "Victory Cities" (the most popular target being Leningrad) before May of 1942 (this was the game turn on which Russian replacements jumped from 6 to 8 factors per Victory City): such a strategic coup, it was hoped, would prevent the Soviet player from rebuilding the Red Army back up to its full, pre-war strength in the middle and late portions of the game.

German panzer division moves to the Russian front, 1942
Interestingly, the two-pronged German approach to the conquest of Russia outlined above — which for purposes of this discussion, we will refer to from now on as the Blitzkrieg or "Attrition" Strategy — although certainly risky, was really not quite as ill-considered or profligate as it might initially appear. In fact, there were actually several factors that operated in its favor: first, early Russian defensive play was still relatively unsophisticated, which meant that — because all three of the Russian 2-3-6's were often exposed to attack during the first few turns of the game — pre-replacement Soviet losses among larger units tended to be relatively high; and second, almost all Russian players during this era pursued the "Bash Finland First" strategy as a standard opening, and this allocation of substantial forces against Finland typically opened up first turn low-odds (2 to 1, 1 to 1, or 1 to 2) German attacks against either the Bug River at Brest-Litovsk or the Nemunas River at S18, or sometimes both. Still, in games between equally-matched opponents, Axis prospects for victory — barring near fabulous German combat results — tended to be pretty slim; it was still a lot of fun to play the Axis, but pulling out a win with the Germans against a competent Russian opponent was usually seen as being out of reach. Enter the early STALINGRAD game theorists.


German military train, 1941
The German "attrition" or Blitzkrieg approach to STALINGRAD had, as noted above, been a largely spontaneous reaction by frustrated Axis players to the inequities that had (inadvertently, we all hoped) been designed into the game's basic architecture. Nonetheless, it wasn't long before a few inventive players — both in face-to-face discussions and in print — began to present a more coherent approach to German offensive operations based both on established military principles (e.g. economy and concentration of forces, and centralized reserves) and statistical analysis. The central premise around which these new ideas began to coalesce was still the early attrition of the Red Army, but the Blitzkrieg strategy, these early innovators argued, would be far more effective if it were focused on long-term strategic goals as well as on short-term Russian losses. This meant, for example, that, while low-odds attacks should still be a staple tactic of the Germans, they should be restricted — under most circumstances, at least — to situations in which an Axis victory not only inflicted direct damage on local Soviet forces, but also generated an advantageous strategic outcome for the Germans (e.g., an early bridgehead across the Nemunas or the capture of Brest-Litovsk). The effectiveness of different low-odds combat ratios — given the peculiarities of the "standard" Avalon Hill Combat Results Table and the effects of exchanges — was also closely examined for the first time: the result being, interestingly enough, that most experienced "attrition" players (at least in the period prior to Avalon Hill's final verdict on the exchange rules) discarded one-to-one attacks almost completely in favor of one-to-two or two-to-one attacks whenever low-odds combats were called for. Finally, it should be noted that not every new idea about ways of improving German chances was strategic or even operational in nature; some were purely tactical. "Envelopement attacks" to encircle Russian garrisons at river bends, "forward retreats" which, when successful, enabled attacking units to retreat through gaps between defending units and into the enemy's rear, and the "five-to-one entrapment attack" which was intended to bag the valuable Russian 2-3-6's and, by so doing, prevent their return to the frontline for at least one game turn. [Some of these tactical ploys are actually quite clever, and for that reason I will probably treat them to a detailed discussion in a later essay in this series.] Thus it was that, while some STALINGRAD players focused their attention on the problems of the Soviet defense, other, equally clever theorists raced to keep pace with their Russian counterparts by coming up with new and often ingenious ways of improving German play.

Soviet 76mm Zis3 anti-tank gun and crew
In spite of the numerous and noteable improvements in German play that grew out of the work of the Blitzkrieg theorists, however, a play-balance problem as egregious as the one described above soon produced a bit of customer blow-back against Avalon Hill; and somewhat less quickly, the boys in Baltimore responded with a fix the problem: the "historical" 4-6-8 replacement rate was left unchanged, but the game's lead developer grudgingly caved in to popular sentiment and declared that the hitherto "optional" 4-5-6 Soviet replacement rate should be treated as the ruling standard for the game. This official clarification, although it didn't really balance the game, did at least partially reduce what had previously been an almost insurmountable Russian advantage — baked into the game by the "official" historical replacement rate — to something a little more palatable to the Axis player.


Driving through
mud on the Eastern Front
The other game element which, for the better part of a decade, persistently (and unnecessarily) skewed play in favor of the Russians was, ironically enough, not the fault of the game's original design at all. Instead, it was the unintended consequence of a misunderstanding by the vast majority of STALINGRAD players when it came to the game's unique exchange rules. I know because I and my regular opponents, like virtually all of the other gamers that we encountered both in informal and in tournament settings, played STALINGRAD incorrectly for years before we were finally alerted to the error of our ways. This widespread misunderstanding derived from an almost universal misreading of the unusual (and, for a time, hotly debated) STALINGRAD exchange rule that required that "attack factors be exhanged for attack factors". In a nutshell, when the new game first appeared in 1963, most experienced gamers simply assumed — incorrectly, it turned out — that, in spite of what the rules actually said, exchanges between a German attacker and a Russian defender required that the German player remove factors equal to the Russian unit's higher defense value. This meant, for example, that an exchange against a doubled Soviet 5-7-4 obliged the Axis player to remove fourteen combat factors from his attacking force. Certainly, this made exchanges particularly painful for the Germans, but no one I knew questioned this incorrect rules interpretation, even in passing.

Russian mixed column, 1941
Now, looking back on this rather bizarre episode, I think that there were probably several reasons for this odd form of gamer "mass delusion" — sloppy rules reading being the most obvious. And poorly thought out, and often contradictory rules interpretations from Avalon Hill were certainly another. However, I suspect that the real origin of this widespread misconception (particularly in later years) probably derived from pre-existing player assumptions based on the already standardized exchange rules of earlier Avalon Hill titles such as GETTYSBURG, D-DAY, and WATERLOO; all of these earlier games called for a one-to-one exchange of attack factors for defense factors; unfortunately, what applied to early Avalon Hill games did not apply to the Russian Front. It turned out that the popular interpretation was wrong; the game rules weren't incorrect or misprinted, and the designers really did intend for exchanges in STALINGRAD to be computed on an attack factor versus attack factor basis. The adoption of this change, by the way, was no trivial matter when it came to its effect on the game. Once players finally started using the original, printed exchange rules, German casualties due to exchanges immediately plummeted by between 35 and 40 percent; moreover, and just as importantly, the adoption of the designers' "intended" exchange rules also significantly reduced losses among the hard-to-replace German panzer units. Lastly, in addition to their other important effects, these changes also had an immediate and significant impact on Axis combat options when it came to low-odds attacks.

[As an intriguing bit of war gaming trivia, Don Greenwood (who had inherited this controversy, first from Tom Shaw and then from Randall Reed) was the one at Avalon Hill — I can only assume after he had seen one STALINGRAD rules question too many on this topic — to finally step in personally to end the persistent confusion over the issue of exchanges in STALINGRAD. He did so by reiterating, in the pages of "The General", that the original, printed exchange rules were correct, and that the popular "attack factors for defense factors" exchange rules, widespread though they might be among gamers, was incorrect. Most players — but especially those who preferred to command the Germans — were delighted, if a little nonplussed, when Don Greenwood (who had, at one time, alluded to the "exchange attack factors for defense factors, himself) threw the official weight of Avalon Hill (such as it was) behind the rules requirement that "attack factors be exchanged for attack factors". However, while the vast majority of STALINGRAD players were pleased with Greenwood's formal (if belated) rules clarification, it soon turned out that there was at least one group of gamers who did not appreciate Baltimore's intervention on this issue; and that was the MIT contingent, who were more-or-less headed by George Phillies, but who also included Richard Sylvan and Stanley Hoffman, among others. The reason for this kerfuffle between MIT and Avalon Hill is unclear, although the most popular theory is that the boys at MIT (particularly Hoffman and Sylvan), having developed their theory of play based on a quantitative analysis of projected loss-rates using the incorrect exchange rules, were disinclined to accept a change which invalidated much of their already-completed analysis. Whatever the reason, the boys at MIT were outraged; in fact, George was personally so unhappy with Avalon Hill that he and Don Greenwood ended up going back and forth on this issue for several months, even after the matter had been officially (and forever) resolved, first in "The General", and then in the 2nd Edition of the STALINGRAD rules.]

A New Paradigm: The "Positional" or "Long Game" Strategy

Stalingrad  street fighting, 1942
If the early attrition of Soviet units through the application of the Blitzkrieg strategy was the favored approach for many German players during the 1960's and early 1970's, it was nonetheless not without its critics. Heretical thinkers like George Phillies, along with a few other early STALINGRAD contrarians like Gary Gygax, Dave Roberts, and Richard Sylvan, all believed that the Germans had a far better chance of winning if they went for a "positional" (mapboard) advantage during the middle and end games, rather than seeking to fatally wound the Red Army during the Axis player's opening moves. STALINGRAD, they argued, was twenty-four, not four turns long; hence, the game would rarely, if ever, be won by the Germans in the initial fighting for the Nemunas and the Bug, but only in the middle-game battles that would typically be fought in the vast expanse of steppe that stretched between the Dnepr and the Don Rivers. In keeping with this (at the time) unorthodox line of thinking, these early iconoclasts challenged established STALINGRAD orthodoxy by asserting that, while a certain amount of early-game attrition of Soviet units was undoubtedly beneficial, the all-or-nothing Blitzkrieg approach — when used as the guiding strategy for Axis play — was actually a loser for the Germans because, by fixating on inflicting fatal damage on the Red Army during the early game, it wagered too much on the combat results of the first few game turns. Moreover, as if these pessimistic observations weren't discouraging enough, the same heretics also argued that the "Laws of Big Numbers" virtually guaranteed that, however cleverly players might execute the "attrition" strategy, the distribution of combat losses between the two opposing armies — because of the doubling terrain on the frontier and the nature of the Avalon Hill Combat Results Table (CRT) — would actually tend to favor the Russians in the majority of games. And they continued, they had yet more bad news: the German operational focus on short-term goals, they suggested, was not the only thing wrong with this "blood and guts" attrition approach. Thus, even when viewed on its own terms, Phillies and his fellow contrarians were uncharitable enough to point out that the Blitzkrieg strategy still suffered from four additional (and well-nigh lethal) defects: first, it was flawed because it called for the Germans to make their main offensive effort precisely when the Russian army was at its absolute strongest and its front line was shortest, and, even more troubling, when virtually all of the Soviet frontier units were doubled on defense; second, because it usually focused on breaching the Nemunas and Bug Rivers (and sometimes the Prut) on the first or second game turns — river lines that the heretics argued, were actually relatively unimportant strategic barriers, particularly when compared to the Dnepr River and the Kursk-Kharkov-Stalino "City Line" — it risked dissipating Axis combat power far too early, and on the wrong strategic objectives, to boot; third, by concentrating on the early capture of a Russian Victory City, typically Leningrad in the far north, the Blitzkrieg approach inevitably diminished Axis "broad front" pressure against Russian dispositions everywhere else on the map; and fourth, it confidently assumed that the Soviet player would react to German moves passively (that is: no counterattacks or unexpected counter moves) — in itself, a completely unrealistic assumption if it turned out, as would be likely, that the Russian player was at all competent.

German anti-tank gun and crew, Stalingrad
Although the "anti-attrition" heretics gained a few converts early on, their more methodical "long game" approach did not really gain supporters in a big way until the two previously described STALINGRAD play-balance issues — the "historical" Russian replacement schedule and the "misunderstood" exchange rules — were finally sorted out and the more German-friendly changes adopted by the majority of Avalon Hill regulars. These two adjustments to the game, although they did not actually tip play-balance in the Germans' favor, nonetheless dramatically altered the game's dynamic; and they did this, first, by reducing the Russian player's ability to easily make good his battlefield losses, especially during the opening and middle game; and second, by significantly curtailng German casualties. Both of these changes seemed, in the eyes of many players (myself included), to substantially strengthen the case for the more patient, "long game" strategy. Moreover, the "positional" advocates expanded their brief by arguing that Axis success depended, more than any other single factor, on the German player's ability to first recognize and then exploit the inevitable offensive opportunities created by Russia's somewhat peculiar geography. Thus, in their view, establishing a German advantage by weakening the Russian force pool was useful, but understanding the STALINGRAD map's unique geography and its effect on the flow of the game's turn-by-turn action was the real key to successful German play. And to see why this is so, the contrarians continued, it was only necessary to carefully examine Avalon Hill's 1963 rendition of European Russia.

Russian Geography and the "Nuts and Bolts" of German Play

German panzers at the Don River, 1942
The STALINGRAD game map is, by today's standards, relatively plain; the graphics are primitive, and the types of terrain are few and highly abstracted. That being said, the overall configuration of the part of Russia over which the opposing armies will battle is intriguing because it is shaped somewhat like a funnel with its neck aiming towards the west. In game terms, this means that the Soviet territory adjacent to Russia's Axis enemies (that is: that part of the "old" Soviet Union that abutts the Finnish, Polish, Hungarian, and Rumanian borders) is relatively narrow, but that once the frontier region has been breached and the Axis armies begin to push east into the Russian interior, the territory exposed to attack (and hence, the front that the Soviet commander must defend) expands rapidly. Prior to the German invasion, however, the portion of Russia opposite Poland (where the bulk of the German army will start the game) — thanks to the fortuitous locations of the Nemunas, Bug, and San Rivers, along with a convenient bit of the Carpathian Mountain Range — makes it relatively easy (all that doubling terrain) for the Soviet player to defend this critical sector of the front in strength. In addition, to add to the Red Army's initial advantages, once the German invasion actually gets under way, direct north-south communications on the main front are blocked by the Pripyat Marshes. Moreover, the challenges associated with attacking out of Poland are not the only problems facing the Germans in the early game turns. Looking south, Russia's border with pro-Axis Hungary (which is neutral until turn two) is shielded by an uninterrupted, and virtually impregnable chain of mountains. And in the far south, the boundary that the Soviet Union shares with Rumania — which stretches from Hungary to the Black Sea — is largely screened from Axis attack by both the Siretul and the Prut Rivers. Only Germany's ally in the far north, Finland, begins the game in a position to exert real strategic pressure against the Soviets by threatening one of Russia's three Victory Cities, Leningrad; and even in this instance, deployment restrictions on Axis forces (a maximum of 22 attack factors with no reinforcements permitted) along with a total absence of doubling terrain in Finland, makes the Axis units in this theater of operations easy targets should the Soviet player decide to liquidate this isolated Axis enclave.

German FLAK 88mm gun crew keeping warm, Winter 1942
Of course, different players will look at the same game map and see very different things. Thus, the proponents of the Blitzkrieg strategy — of whom, interestingly enough, there are still more than a few die-hard adherents around, even now — countered the arguments of the "positional" advocates by pointing out that, whatever STALINGRAD strategy the Germans ultimately pursued, low-odds attacks would still have to be made; hence, the fans of Blitzkrieg persisted, it was better to make a few potentially costly battlefield bets in the early game turns before Soviet replacements could make themselves felt, than to wait until later in the campaign when even major Soviet units (the 7-10-4's and 6-9-6, again) could be resurrected within a turn or two of their elimination. Neither side in this long-running debate, by the way, disagreed with the fundamental premise that, for the Axis player to win in STALINGRAD against a skillful opponent, a certain number of low-odds attacks would absolutely have to be made in the course of play. No, the real dispute between the Blitzkrieg adherents and the "long game" contrarians was not whether such attacks should be conducted; instead, the two opposing camps mainly quibbled over when, how often, and against which Soviet targets the Germans should gamble with these types of "high risk/high reward" combats. In reality, given how long this debate actually continued, whole essays could probably be written taking the side of one or the other these very different German approaches to play; nonetheless, the main arguments underpinning the thinking of the two opposing camps in this ongoing (if informal) squabble were (and still are) both interesting and, in some cases, even ingenious. Hence, although some of the "pros and cons" associated with the Blitzkrieg and "long game" strategies have already been covered previously, the thoroughness and subtlety of the arguments presented by each of the two parties to this dispute — in my view, at least — probably justify a more detailed discussion than the brief outline offered earlier.

The Case for the Blitzkrieg Strategy

Briefing Soviet soldiers before battle
At the time that the debate between the "attrition" and "positional" camps was first joined, no theory of German play was more familiar to the typical STALINGRAD player than the Blitzkrieg strategy. That being said, no approach to Axis play could have ever attained the widespread popularity among regular players that it enjoyed, its proponents argued, if its underlying premises did not make sense. Some of these basic ideas, not surprisingly, were concerned mainly with the tactics of the game, and some with the longer-term operational direction of Axis play. However, among those grognards who, collectively, had probably done the most to develop and then refine the Blitzkrieg strategy, the consensus view was that — while all of the different concepts contained in this approach were relevant to successful play — the central operational imperative contained in the Blitzkrieg system was the one that called for the Axis to spread the Soviet defense as quickly and as broadly as possible. And this was to be done even if, as was likely, it entailed disproportionately heavy German casualties during the first few turns of the game. These early Axis losses — in spite of a relatively small German advantage in starting combat power (247 Axis attack factors to 220 Soviet defense factors) — were considered to be of secondary importance because of the significant edge enjoyed by the German player in sheer numbers of units: fifty-nine for the Axis to thirty-four units for the Russian. Clearly, the trick for the Axis commander, the "attrition" players asserted, was to find a way to translate these starting advantages into success on the game map. Since the Soviet player could be expected to give up the ground of "Holy Russia" only gudgingly, it was considered to be crucial by the Blitzkrieg advocates that Axis forces both destroy large numbers of Soviet combat units and, at the same time, also push the Red Army out of some of its initial defensive positions early in the game. This did not mean that German players should set impossible goals for themselves: for example, experience had shown that the capture of a Soviet Victory City by May of 1942 was usually beyond the Werhmacht's capabilities; however, a faster than normal eastern advance — given a few good die rolls in the battles on the frontier — was definitely not out of reach. And a rapid German eastern drive accompanied by a widening front meant that the (hopefully) now reduced pool of Red Army units would steadily become more and more spread out. Such a dispersal of forces, the Blitzkrieg theorists opined, would make it increasingly difficult for the Russian commander to defend his entire front in strength; it would also make it much harder for the Soviet player to assemble the local forces necessary to launch counterattacks against exposed German spearheads.

German troops on the line near Leningrad
Second, along with their opening arguments, the Blitzkrieg proponents also looked to further support their case by claiming that the "attrition" strategy, even if only moderately successful, would still have two positive effects on the flow and tempo of play: first, the increased Russian combat casualties that should result from the flurry of low-odds attacks unleashed during the first few game turns would magnify the damage caused by those losses on the Soviet Order of Battle and, just as importantly, postpone the return of the Red Army to full strength later in the game; second, if Stalin's frontier defenses could be breeched early on, then it was virtually certain that the Soviet player would either be forced to give up too much ground too soon, or, alternatively, would have to sacrifice more units than usual purely to impede the Axis advance. This second result, the "attrition" supporters continued, could very well make the critically-important Russian defensive positions at both the Dnepr River and the Kursk-Kharkov-Stalino "City Line" — because German attacks would (in theory) be mounted against these geographical barriers earlier than in a typically-paced game — much easier and less expensive (casualties-wise) for the Axis to crack.

Battle for Moscow, 1941; the Russians counterattack
Third, in addition to its tangible benefits, some of the more inventive proponents of the "attrition" approach also pointed out that the use of the Blitzkrieg strategy had another more far-reaching advantage completely independent of its battlefield results; that is: it had the capacity to exert substantial and ongoing psychological pressure on the Russian player. In essence, their argument was that — by demonstrating an early willingness to conduct low-odds attacks against doubled defenders — such hyper-aggressiveness on the part of the Axis player might well induce the Soviet commander to over commit combat units to the defense of certain key positions, thereby leaving other sections of his or her frontline more vulnerable to attack. And, taking this argument one step further, a few of the more competitively-oriented members of the Blitzkrieg fraternity went so far as to suggest that the shock of early (and unexpected) German battlefield successes might, in some cases, lead to the partial or even total collapse of the Russian players' morale.

The Positional Theorists' Rebuttal

The "long game" advocates' response to the Blitzkrieg players' supporting arguments was both interesting and actually rather clever: instead of disputing the logic of their opponents' case, they began by conceding the overall validity of virtually every one of the opposing side's points; then, however, in a neat bit of rhetorical jujitsu, they turned each of these seeemingly pro-attrition arguments against their original authors. The Blitzkrieg supporters, asserted the "positional" advocates, were generally correct in their particulars, but completely wrong in their conclusions.

German Panzer IV tank PzKpfw IV Ausf A
To begin with, the proponents of the "long game" approach acknowledged that the Axis might, indeed, be able to afford to lose a significant number of units (and combat power) during the early game turns and not suffer irreparable damage; however, this Axis capacity to absorb casualties was not nearly as significant as the Blitzkrieg proponents claimed. The problem, the "positional" theorists cautioned, lay with the anemic German replacement rate: because the Axis player received only four factors of replacement points per game turn, early losses — particularly among the powerful panzer units — could be both problematic stacking-wise and especially difficult to make good. Moreover, even if the panzer arm could be kept more-or-less intact, most infantry units once lost would probably stay lost for the remainder of the game. This last was important because many players in the Blitzkrieg camp confidently asserted that the Germans could easily afford to give up 55-70 combat factors during the summer and fall of 1941 — assuming, of course, that there was substantial damage to the Red Army — and, with a force of 175-190+ Axis attack factors remaining on the map, still retain enough offensive punch to successfully prosecute a broad front offensive into the Russian interior. Not so, responded the "long game" contrarians: yes, a Wehrmacht that had been reduced to 190 or fewer attack factors could probably get across the Dnepr; but, once the Germans had pushed deeper into the Russian steppe, the same expanding front that had brought about the dispersal of Soviet units would also spread and dilute the Axis player's own combat power. Even the arrival of the Hungarians and Italians in May 1942 (six units comprising 18 combat factors) would be of little help when it came to maintaining Axis pressure along a front that would, by this point in the game, likely extend from Riga in the north, to Stalino and the Crimea in the south. In point of fact, the "long game" advocates pointed out, it was precisely at this point in the campaign (the middle and late game) that the heavy early Axis losses would come back to haunt the German player by limiting his or her offensive options during the final Axis push to capture the three Russian Victory Cities.

German planes enroute to bomb Soviet cities, June 1941
Next, the supporters of the "positional" approach turned their attention to the alledged benefits of breeching the Russian frontier defenses during the early part of the game. Yes, the Nemunas and the Bug Rivers, the "long game proponents admitted, were important defensive barriers, nonetheless — pointing to the oddities of the STALINGRAD game map — they critiqued the Blitzkrieg approach in terms of the "real", rather than the "idealized" hypothetical value to the Germans of breaking either the Nemunas or the Bug River lines a turn or two ahead of schedule. Thus, in the case of the Nemunas, the "long game" advocates acknowledged that an early bridgehead across the river (usually at S18 or V19) would force the Soviet commander to sacrifice at least one extra unit per game turn until such time as the Axis advance had at last pushed up against the Dnepr River and the Smolensk "bottleneck"; however, Russian control of the Divina River and Minsk early in the game would still severely restrict German northern progress during the critically important summer and fall months of 1941; also, this part of the front's proximity to both Leningrad and Moscow guaranteed that a steady stream of Soviet replacements would be able to reach the battle area within one or (during snow weather) two game turns, at most. Furthermore, the "positional" players suggested that even if, as the "attrition" proponents hoped, one or both of the powerful Russian 7-10-4's could be destroyed during the first few game turns, the Soviet player would still almost always have ample time to resurrect one or both of these units before they were actually needed to shore up the Divina and Dnepr defenses in the north. Moreover, so far as the Phillies' camp was concerned, things did not look much better when it came to the Blitzkrieg strategy's probable impact on German operations south of the Pripyat Marshes. For starters, the Bug River and Brest-Litovsk, although powerful Soviet defensive assets during the first few game turns, would be quickly rendered unuseable, whether attacked or not, once the river's northern flank had been turned. Thereafter, the German player, once he or she had pushed through the gap between Poland and Hungary and linked up with the Axis forces that had begun the game in Rumania, would debauch into a narrow (four hexes wide) gap between the marshes in the north and a maze of rivers (the Prut, Dnestr, and Southern Bug) in the far south. From this point on, the German player — no matter how successful his or her earlier attacks against the Bug had been — would face a Soviet hedgehog in the "DD" file [a hedgehog is a unit or stack of units that, because it can only be assaulted from one hex, cannot be attacked at 3 to 1 or better odds] and a single Russian blocker (destroyed and replaced on each game turn) as a point sacrifice in the "FF" file. Barring successful low-odds attacks against the trio (quartet if the Siretul is counted) of riverlines in the far south, the Axis advance south of the Pripyat Marshes could be expected to grind its way forward, one hex at a time, until it had finally managed to batter its way up to the western outskirts of Kiev and the southern Dnepr; usually not before the winter of 1941/42.

Battle of Moscow, Soviet Siberian soldiers
As an alternative to the early game "attrition" strategy, the "long game" proponents argued that early Axis moves should be both less risky and less ambitious than those of their Blitzkrieg counterparts. In game terms, this meant that the German player should, during the first few turns — except, of course, when dealing with aggressively-placed Russian garrisons on U18 and V18, or on CC14 — mainly seek to avoid low-odds attacks until the front had begun to open up. The advantage of this strategy, theorists like Phillies and his supporters asserted, was that not only would the Germans be able to catch the natural flow of the game while incurring only minimal losses, but that a more patient approach would also permit the accumulation of Axis replacement points in anticipation of the battles, low-odds and otherwise, that were sure to come as the front moved east. Moreover, attractive low-odds gambles, the "positional" players suggested, were bound to arise as the game progressed. Minsk, for example — unless very heavily garrisoned by the Russians — was one such target: the early capture of this Soviet city would not only disrupt Russian defensive arrangements on the road to Smolensk and Moscow, but, more importantly, the premature fall of Minsk would also expose the northern Dnepr to an early (winter 1941/42) Axis attack precisely when Soviet movement was most severely restricted by weather. In the south, the "long game" advocates saw similar opportunities for important German gains if an early bridgehead across the southern Dnepr could be established, or if Kiev or Depropetrovsk could be captured ahead of schedule. And last but not least, undoubled Soviet "hedgehogs", particularly those which included major Russian units (that is: the 7-10-4's and the 6-9-6) would be excellent targets of opportunity for low-odds Axis attacks at virtually any stage of the game.

JS1 heavy Russian tank.
On the issue of player psychology, the "positional" players were in general agreement with the Blitzkrieg faction, but with one important caveat: certainly, they admitted, a Soviet player who was confronted on the first turn of a game by a seemingly fearless opponent would, in all likelihood, immediately move to adjust his or her defensive arrangements; but, the "long game" supporters continued, think of how much greater the defending commander's unease (and paranoia) would be if a hitherto conservative German adversary suddenly changed gears and resorted to these types of unanticipated (and hence, unplanned for by the Russian) attacks in the middle game when, because of the length of the front and the effects of bad weather (snow or mud), the Soviet commander would have less opportunity to quickly react to such a sudden change in the strategic tempo of the game. [Speaking from experience, I encountered just such a situation while playing the Russians in a PBM game many years ago. My opponent, who I had never played before, methodically advanced during the early turns munching delay units and attacking only when he could muster three-to-one or better odds until, by winter of 1941/42, I had become convinced that I was in complete control of the flow and tempo of the game. Then, on the February '42 game turn, all hell broke loose when he suddenly unleashed low-odds attacks against the northern Dnepr, the southern Dnepr, and Depropetrovsk. All three attacks were bloody, but all three were also successful. To make matters worse, although his losses — due to exchanges and soak-offs — were heavy, he was able to immediately replace (on his March '42 turn) everything but a few 4-4-4's and a couple of Rumanian 2-2-4's; this was because he had only used seven of his replacement points up to this point in the game. Obviously, had my opponent's attacks failed, I would have been in excellent shape; but the fact that he had blasted his way through virtually the entire length of my carefully constructed Dnepr defense line in a single game turn was a complete and utterly unexpected shock. What I had thought was pretty much a won game for the Soviets prior to his February attacks, had suddenly become a gut-wrenching problem with no obvious solution. Player psychology, it turns out, does matter. In my own case, because I have a very high pain threshold when it comes to morale, I didn't give up; but I would be lying if I said that my long-ago opponent did not succeed in thoroughly rattling me for the next few turns of our game. And as to who actually won the game in question? When it comes to that, for some reason, the final outcome has been permanently erased from my memory.]

German army horse drawn supply wagon,
Soviet Union, WWII
Finally, as their closing argument, the "positional" advocates pointed out that, whatever else one could say about the current and future trends in STALINGRAD competition, one thing was crystal clear: Russian play was steadily improving and German players could expect to face increasingly formidable defensive arrangements as time went on. Moreover, because of the widespread popularity of the German Blitzkrieg strategy, particularly on the tournament circuit, most of the newer Soviet Defenses seemed to be designed with no other purpose than to thwart the tactics of the typical "attrition" player. The most compelling evidence for this trend was the abandonment, by a substantial number of experienced Russian players, of the "Bash Finland First" strategy beginning in the early seventies. The alternative most of them chose was bad news for the Germans because it was during this period that the "hyper-modern" Russian defenses first began to appear. Moreover, the rapid proliferation of different versions of the hyper-modern Russian opening both in casual and in tournament play, the "long game" proponents suggested, was irrefutable proof that the better Soviet players had found the perfect antidote to the Blitzkrieg approach, and that these newer, more "in your face" openings, in fact, were specifically aimed at bleeding an overly-aggresive German player's army white during the early game turns.

Debate Aftermath: Who Won?

German Tiger destroys Soviet T34
The dispute over which German offensive strategy was the most likely to lead to battlefield success has now raged on (with sometimes greater and sometimes lesser intensity) for decades and, based on discussions that I have had with other experienced STALINGRAD players over the years — both at tournament conventions and in gaming forums — has still not been resolved in favor of one side or the other. In point of fact, the more successful Blitzkrieg players have mainly stayed with their strategy of choice, and the "positional" players have stuck with theirs. That being said, if this debate ultimately had any effect on STALINGRAD play, it was with those observers standing on the sidelines who, like me, were not fully commited to any hard-and-fast ideas about how the game should be played. Thus, using myself as an example, I gradually became persuaded to adopt more and more of the theories of the "long game" advocates as more and more time passed (thanks mainly to the rise in popularity of the hyper-modern Soviet defenses) until, at some point, I found that the conversion from "attrition" player to "positional" player was complete.

Soviet POWs under German guard, 1941
There is another point that also probably needs to be acknowledged when it comes to the long-running argument between the Blitzkrieg and "long game" STALINGRAD factions; and that is this: there was, and still is, quite a bit of both operational and tactical overlap between the two competing approaches to Axis play. Both camps accept the fact, for instance, that, against an experienced Russian player, the Germans simply cannot win the game if they wait for "safe" three-to-one or better attack odds; that if Soviet defensive arrangements are not periodically (and unexpectedly) disrupted, then the Russian player will be able to maintain complete control over the flow and tempo of the game. The real disagreement between the two camps arises over when, where, and how many of these risky attacks should actually be attempted by the German commander. Thus, an obvious question arises: How does the Soviet commander actually determine whether he or she is facing an "attrition" or a "positional" player? The answer, in the case of the Blitzkrieg player, is fairly straight forward: if the casualties for both armies are unexpectedly high at the end of the first few game turns, then the Russians are probably facing an adversary committed to the "attrition" strategy. In the case of the "long game" player, on the other hand, the issue tends to be a little more complicated: it may well not be clear whether the German commander is merely overly-conservative or, alternatively, is a "positional" player who is merely biding his or her time until the Wehrmacht arrives on the banks of the Dnepr; it is typically at this stage of the game that the final answer will be made clear.

Of course, in the end, we are brought back to the crux of the original debate: which is, all things considered, which of these two approaches gives the German player the best chance of victory in STALINGRAD? This is certainly a simple enough question to ask; however, as I hope I have been able to show in this essay, it is also virtually impossible to answer definitively. Perhaps, when everything is said and done, the issue really comes done to a player's temperment: the aggressive German commander who wants to sieze the initiative on the first game turn and maintain it thereafter, will probably prefer the Blitzkrieg strategy; on the other hand, the Axis player who is patient enough to take risks selectively, but who still wants to maximize the battlefield results of a comparatively small number of low-odds attacks will probably be more comfortable with the less nerve-racking "long game" approach.

CONCLUSION

The play of STALINGRAD, like that of virtually all of the Avalon Hill classics, has undergone a number of changes in the decades since the game's introduction in 1963. Some of these changes I have already outlined in the first installment of "The 'STALINGRAD' Notebook", but others have resulted from a process — driven by the creative efforts of a number of dedicated players — that, for want of a better word, I will call the "deconstruction" of the original game design. What I mean by this is that, as time has gone by, improved Russian defensive play has inevitably led to new (sometimes radical) thinking about methods (both tactical and strategic) to improve the German player's prospects for victory in STALINGRAD; and, just as importantly, this new thinking has also led to a reappraisal of the effect of the flow and tempo of the game on German options. Stated differently, the rise in popularity of the hyper-modern Russian defense has had a dramatic impact on contemporary views of what is actually required to generate a reasonable chance of an Axis victory. Thus, German control of terrain at various stages in the game, strength differentials between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, and the role of low-odds attacks have all been thoroughly reevaluated by long-time players, and, in more than a few cases, old ideas have either been modified extensively or even discarded completely.

Finally, I should note that the terms "Blitzkrieg" (and "attrition") and "positional" (and "long game") are my own. In order to more clearly illustrate what I believe to be the gradual evolution of German strategic thought among STALINGRAD players, I have resorted to an arbitrary and (admittedly) somewhat simplified typology of the ideas that found themselves in competition both in countless face-to-face discussions and within the pages of the hobby press over the years. It is doubtful, in fact, that even the self-professed proponents of the two schools of German play that I have outlined in this essay would necessarily agree with all of my conclusions regarding the theories underpinning the two, very different approaches to German strategy. Nonetheless, I think that, on the whole, I have been fair to both factions, and that the preceding description — brief though it may be — is generally true, if not to the letter, then at least to the "spirit" of the facts.

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12 comments:

  • Joe,What can one even say but Wow!THat was one truely great read you just presented to us on a true classic game.And a game thats suppose to be soooo outdated and un-histoircal but still can lead to the best damn articles on tactics and game play out there. Thank you for one outstanding piece of reading

  • Greetings Kim:

    Thanks, as always, for your kind words.

    This piece turned out, as I indicated in a prior post, to be a lot harder to bring to a conclusion than I had expected when I started work on it. In the end, I cut away and saved enough material for at least three more essays -- that's how rich the subject matter is when one really starts to delve into it.

    Thanks again for your interest and
    Best Regards, Joe

  • great article joe! i'm beginning to think that advance across the nemunas is not really worth it until the center rail lines are taken; as long as the axis is confined to separate "fronts" the russian can easily adopt his line. re:"ahistorical" critique-the game does not provide quick breakthroughs and vast encirclements-true. but the more one reads about barbarossa,the more one realizes that the campaign was "lost" in 1942 with the operations in the south-this period is also the make or break time in STALINGRAD. i would bet that the board often looks very close to history around november 1942...

  • Greetings Brian:

    Thanks for the kind words.

    Yes, between expert players the German advance in 'STALINGRAD' will, in the summer of '42, often produce a frontline that at least somewhat resembles the historical front. Obviously, no encirclement of Leningrad and no dash for Baku and Tiflis, but otherwise, fairly similar. The problem is that inexperienced German players seldom last that long: they usually burn the "Wehrmacht" out in the first year, and do not have enough offensive punch left to push across the Dnepr in time to generate a broad front advance into the Russian interior.

    As I indicated in a previous exchange, so far as I'm concerned, when I am playing the Axis, I don't consider the game to have really started until I have breeched the Dnepr on a broad front. Unfortunately, when it comes to playing the Germans, it gets easier and easier to make a mistake in selecting attacks or in strategic allocation of forces at this stage, which is why I consider the middle-game to actually be the most challenging portion of the game.

    Thanks again for visiting and

    Best Regards, Joe

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Hello Joe:

    This is an outstanding article. It brings back some fond memories although I have not played the game for years.

    I got my copy at Christmas 1963 and still have it - green counter backs and all. I have always liked the photographs on the box. It was several years before I discovered that the game was not very historical.

    I remember one game from the late 1960's still - especially as I lost. My opponent adopted what you would call the "positional" strategy using an approach of minimizing German losses with high odds attacks. My strategy was to attrition him down with exchanges and selected counter-attacks. Unfortunately, he rolled a disproportionate number of non-exchange attack results at 3-1 or better. My line remained intact yet kept getting pushed back. Everything went downhill once I lost Moscow.

    I did not realize that exchanges were done based on attack factors although I can not remember how we did exchanges back 40+ years ago.

    Sincerely,

    Don

  • Greetings Don:

    Thank you for your kind words, and for your interest.

    You might be surprised to learn that 'STALINGRAD' still -- even after all these years -- still has an active community of player-supporters. In fact, I invite you to follow the link at the bottom of another of my posts, "STALINGRAD ANYONE?", in order to get a sense of just how active that community actually remains.

    Thanks again for visiting and for sharing your thoughts and

    Best Regards, Joe

  • George Phillies said...

    This was a magnificent article.

    A few historical comments, four+ decades after the fact. Richard Sylvan was graduated from MIT in '66, and so far as I know was not much active in gaming thereafter. Stanley Hoffman finished in '67, very soon after Don Greenwood produced his first issue of Panzerfaust, went off I gather to medical school, and I have heard became a bridge player. Anything Don may have said in the General happened far after Richard and Stanley ceased to be visible in the hobby. The reason, in my opinion, that most players used 'exchange at defense' was that this was one of the answers on which the the AH question and answer service was extremely consistent. We may contrast this with an issue involving fortresses in DDay in which the reverse was true.

    With respect to the second edition rules, I am quite aware of how they are rewritten, though for a slightly different reason. My reserve unit was stationed for its two weeks in scenic Fort Meade, Maryland, so Don picked me up that Saturday, I was given a tour of the AH facilities and we sat down and edited the rules for the second edition, seeking to remove well known inclarities. I was considerably more interested in clarifying the railroad/rough terrain rules and the New York idea that you could kill Russian replacements by attacking the replacement city that was supplying them. Don wanted exchange at attack, and that's what was used. I think it was understood that this was a change, hopefully for the better, not a 'some of you got this wrong'. Rather later, the second edition rules came out.

    I have done very little play of anything since the 1970s.

  • Greetings George:

    Thank you for your kind words; your interest is appreciated.

    Yes, I agree that I may be a little muddled when it comes to the precise chronology and narrative arc when it comes to a few key people and events; but, on the whole, I have tried to be as accurate as memory, old articles from the hobby press, and my own personal gaming notes (accumulated over the years) would allow me to be. As I indicated in the body of this piece: I may be a bit confused when it comes to a few particulars; but I think that I was generally true to the spirit of the early days of the hobby, at least when it comes to the history of 'STALINGRAD' and its players.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment and

    Best Regards, Joe

  • 1963
    "EXCHANGE: An even elimination of combat factors. When an exchange is rolled the player with fewer attack factors removes all his Units--the other player removes the number of Units whose combined attack factors total at least that of the Units removed by his opponent. Since this exchange of combat factors does not always work out even up a player sometimes must remove a number of Units whose total combat factors are more that that of the Units removed by his opponent. In an exchange the combat factors are computed at original or double their value depending upon defensive position."
    There is a possibility that the intent of the rule is that first, the "other" player should remove attack factors at least equal to what the opponent has removed. Then, in the process of removing combat factors the "other" player also should compute the addition to his losses based on the [doubled, if any] defense combat factors of his opponent.

  • Greetings Theresa:

    Thank you for visiting.

    The second, as it turns out, incorrect interpretation of the 'STALINGRAD' Exchange rules predominated among virtually all category of players for years. However, I think that the main reason was not that players read somewhat more into the rules than was actually there, but that most of us (myself included) simply fell back to the default position that we were already familiar with in other Avalon Hill games (e.g., attack factors for defense factors, rather than attack factors for attack factors).

    Best Regards, Joe

  • A monumental effort on your part, thank you!
    Given the illustrated Russian setup in the Battle Manual included in the game (that effectively prevented German First Turn attacks at "3 to 1" and against doubled positions absolutely), a novice German player (myself, prior to the 1974 edition) would assume that the "blitzkrieg" approach -on the first turn- would of necessity be the "expected" approach.
    "Oh, the casualties!" my ftf opponent exclaimed.
    [upon reflection just now, he was was very likely an experienced "long game" player...we're still in touch]
    Well, you know how it works. You set up a game on a table in the Student Union and catch "flies". And sometimes you catch a hornet.
    What else can be expected of anyone's first few games? With the largest army in the world is one supposed to settle for just three single-hex attacks against small "blocking" units -on "front" thirty hexes long? Consequently, how casually one accepts the 16.6% risk of losing 28 factors for no gain by attacking at "2 to 1"!
    And, yes, losses at "double defense" factors.
    "Incorrect interpretation"? No! Rather the broadly [if not universally] received wisdom of [then] contemporary Geek-speak.
    In any case, a guileless dilettante should be excused for making reasonable assumptions about the meaning of colloquial English, given a lack of sufficient examples in the rules and Battle Manual.
    This argument is not over until we can seize files and interrogate witnesses. Time is running out!
    1963! A purchaser could be as young as twelve years old... a designer as young as 24... and that was fifty-two years ago!
    But, 'tis a lovely game and a splendid article by you, sir!

  • Greetings Anon:

    Thank you for visiting and also for your kind words; both are appreciated.

    Yes, like you, I still have fond memories of sitting at a table across from my friends in the Student Union, and playing -- often all day and well into the night -- the original Avalon Hill "classics," or multi-player favorites like DIPLOMACY and (when things got late) EMPEROR OF CHINA, as well as a number of the early titles from SPI. Those were, indeed, good times ...

    Best Regards, Joe

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