Sunday, September 22, 2013

Soviet Dawn Review

In my continued exploration of solo games, I've finally discovered the States of Siege series.  It has a long list of games, covering conflicts of numerous scales and time periods.  I decided to start with the first game in the series, Soviet Dawn.  It may not look like much, but let me assure you, it has it where it counts.

In Soviet Dawn, you are attempting to safeguard the formation of the fledgling Soviet state.  It was published in 2009 by Victory Point Games, and was designed by Darin A. Leviloff.  It's core mechanic revolves around a deck of events with associated action points, similar to what you would find in Twilight Struggle.  It definitely bares closest resemblance to a Card Driven Wargame, just tailored to solitaire design sensibilities.  It's a winning approach to a solitaire game, and at the moment stands as my favorite.

Rule Summary

To set up a game of Soviet Dawn, you lay the map out on the table.  The map has many fronts emanating out from the central location of Moscow.  You set up the German, Eastern and Southern fronts on the furthest space of their track, active side up.  You also place the Polish, Finnish and Allied fronts on the furthest space of their track, inactive side up.

You will place the Political Level counter on the Political Level track in the 1 space.  You will also place the 7 Red Army Reorganization tokens on the Red Army Reorganization table.  You will get 5 Reserve Offensive tokens and 2 Political Decree tokens to place in the Available Resources box.  All the remaining tokens go in the Pieces Not in Play box.

The final step is to make sure the cards are separated according to color.  The cards with a grey headline are Twilight cards.  Black is Darkness, and the Orange is Dawn.  Take just the Twilight cards, shuffle them, and place them in the Draw Pile box on the board.  You are now ready to play.

All set up and ready to play.

Each turn you will flip one card from the Draw Pile into the Event Pile on the board.  Most events will command you to advance various fronts.  If the front is active, and still on the map, you will move it into the lower numbered box on it's track.  After that, the card will award you between 0 to 4 actions, which you will spend fighting back on the various fronts, attempting to raise your Political Level, and attempting to Reorganize the Red Army.

A fairly normal card that
gives you a few DRMs
The most common action is to Conduct Offensives.  In order to conduct an offensive, you simply decide which front you want to try to drive back, and roll a die.  If you roll higher than the number printed on the token for that front, they are driven back!  Otherwise nothing happens.  Many times however you will be effected by various Die Roll Modifiers (DRMs).  These will come from Event cards, as well as rewards you earned from the Reorganization table.  You can also spend one of your Reserve Offensive tokens in order to take a free Offensive action.  However this will not benefit, or suffer, from any DRMs.

Taking a Political Action might raise your political level.  You spend an action, and roll a die.  If the number is greater than the section of the Political Level Track you are in, it advances.  So for example, at the start of the game, you are on space 1.  That is in the International Pariah (3) section of the track.  To increase your Political Level, you must roll above a 3.  This can also be subject to DRMs, but only to a maximum of +1.  You can also spend a Political Decree token in order to take a free Political Action, and these are also unaffected by DRMs.

The Political Track.  0 is defeat, 9 is victory.

Lastly, you can spend an action on Red Army Reorganization.  You must roll a 6, although very rarely you will get a +1 DRM to Reorganization actions from Events.  If you are lucky enough to succeed, you will roll again, and then take the bonus from that number on the Red Army Reorganization Table.  If you've already taken that bonus, you get the Imperial Gold Reserve instead.  These bonuses do amazing and powerful things, from being able to reject a single Event card, to getting a +1 DRM to every Political Action.

The Reorg Table.
I can't ever pick a
A few final notes about Event cards.  Some event cards will instruct you to activate a front.  When this happens, you just flip the token from it's Inactive side to it's Active side.  That front will now advance when an event tells it to.  Two events will cause you to shuffle in the Darkness Event cards, and then the Dawn Event cards that you had set aside.  A few events give you the chance to have a Front withdrawal from the game completely.  A very few events cause the Fronts to get weaker or stronger, or place markers on the board that will impact certain actions.

You lose the game if a Front ever advances into Moscow.  You also lose the game if the Political Level Track ever reaches 0.  There are numerous ways your Political Level can fall to zero.  You will lose a Political Level from several event cards.  Additionally, every time a Front advances into Petrograd or Kiev, you lose a Political Level.

There are two ways to win the game.  Outlast the entire Event deck, which is considered a Military Victory, or get to a Political Level of 9, which is considered a Political Victory.

Win or lose, you will then compute your score.  If you lost, your score will mostly revolve around how many cards you had left to draw.  If you won, your score will involve how close the Fronts got to Moscow, how many Reserve Offensive and Political Decree markers you held onto, and how you did on the Political Level Track.  The game will also tell you how well you did depending on your score.  For example, a Military Defeat with 11 cards left is a Marginal Defeat.  However a Military Victory with a score of 22 would be an Operational Victory!

A timelapse of 3 losing games and 1 winning game played in rapid succession

How accessible is the game to new players?

I found Soviet Dawn to be incredibly accessible.  The rulebook is only 8 pages long.  But you only need to read 4 pages of that before you play.  2 pages are devoted to a great extended play example, and 2 more pages to the detailed resolutions of certain cards.

There is also a rather limited game vocabulary to internalize.  There are only 3 actions you need to learn, which all involve rolling above a certain number, just in different contexts.

Another example of how
everything ties together
Also, if a card has any special rules, it lists the rule you need to reference.  For example, every card that causes Political Dissent includes a reference to rule 7.6 in case you forgot how that works.  Plus every Event card that has a permanent effect on the game has a tracking token.  And the tracking token has a labelled space on the map, the number of the card that effects it printed on it, as well as its permanent effects on the back.

Basically the reference material for this game is incredibly comprehensive, and it's downright difficult to forget anything.  The game does a wonderful job of gently reminding you how to play correctly.

What could have been done better?

Petrograd and Kiev are probably the only parts of the game that don't specifically reference their rule.  They have red names and an asterisk, but no reference to the rule that says you lose a Political Level every time they are taken.  It's a small thing.  But when every other Event card or token tells you which specific rule in the book to reference, it stands out.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

Soviet Dawn reminds me most of Twilight Struggle, but more abstract, and designed exclusively for single player.  But it nails constantly trying to mitigate these awful events, with the meager actions those same cards provide.  There is a real sense of struggling against a rising wave, and wondering how on Earth you can pull this off.  You'll be desperate to use whatever actions you can spare politically, but constantly having to commit yourself militarily or else.

But it's not all pressure all the time, and has a very enjoyable pacing.  Sometimes you will get lucky with a few events and earn some breathing room.  Maybe a Front will stay inactive almost the entire game.  Maybe a Front will go active, and then immediately withdrawal.  Maybe you can get the Allies to go indecisive and be dormant as soon as they activate by advancing your Political Level to 7 or 8.  There are a lot of things that can happen to take the pressure off and make you feel good about your situation.  Even if you still have 4 other Fronts breathing down your neck.

Why is Soviet Dawn so enjoyable?

Soviet Dawn is probably the only solitaire game I want to play again immediately after finishing.  It's not stressful at all.  The game doesn't tax you.  It's hard, don't get me wrong.  But it's not that oppressive sort of difficulty.  It's great when you win, but not devastating when you lose.

This contrast heavily with the Field Commander series.  An issue I've had in Field Commander is I will lose, but the game isn't over.  Sure, Alexander or Napoleon isn't dead.  I technically could continue on.  But my forces are crippled, the enemy is overwhelming, and I'll never accumulate the resources I need to take them on again in the time I have left.  It's just frustrating.  But in Soviet Dawn, you always feel like you have a chance, right up until you lose.

The setup is also easier.  The setup for the Field Commander series can be somewhat involved.  Dozens of counters need to be placed in specific locations on the board.  It's quite an investment of time and effort to get the game going.  You expect some return on this investment of time, a return in some form of enjoyment.  So when the game goes badly and gets frustrating, especially early on, you feel cheated out of the time you spent setting it up.

This is all you have to set up!

In Soviet Dawn, setup is a breeze.  Put a relatively small number of tokens on the board, shuffle a few cards, and you are good to go!  If you lose early, there are hardly any counters you'll need to reset, and thus no hard feelings.  All you need to do is separate out the cards, and it's time for round 2.

The last thing that really helps Soviet Dawn is the robust scoring system.  Especially that there are degrees of failure.  I really appreciate that you may lose the game, but you can measure your loss objectively.  And some of the descriptions of failure don't actually sound that bad.  I'm not too offended by a "Marginal Defeat".  It's a nice consolation prize in fact.  It's like the guy who beats you, but still shakes your hand, and tells you that you played really well.  Once again, I have to contrast this with Field Commander, where a loss is a loss is a loss.  In fact, you only score at all if you win.  It makes it feel like winning is expected and you should feel bad if you lose.

Sixth 1 in a row.  I suspect foul play
Possibly the only complaint I have about Soviet Dawn, it that it feels like luck only effects you.  The enemy advances no matter what.  You success is entirely dictated by die rolls.  Now another way of seeing it is that you frequently get more actions than the enemy gets advancements.  If you succeed on every roll, that was clearly very bad luck for the enemy.  But it still feels like you are the only one effected by bad luck, since the enemy rarely rolls dice.  But this is the first of many issues I have with the game, that appear to be addressed in further entries to the States of Siege series.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

This card has defeated me so many times
Soviet Dawn has numerous events which necessitate some strategic considerations.  The first one you'll become acutely away of is "Determine the Czar's Fate".  This Event card is extremely bad for you unless you've kept the Eastern Front back past the "3" space on it's track.  Other events to be wary of include ones that advance the Polish Front twice, and ones where the Southern Front can just keep advancing until you beat them!  That last one has defeated me numerous times, since the Southern Front can lull you into a false sense of security.

You'll want to reorganize as early and as often as you can in an attempt to get ahead of the game those powerful Reorganization abilities.  But you may decide it's better to wait for the cards that give a +1 DRM to Reorganizing.  It definitely feels like earning those powers is the key to victory.  Depending on which ones you earn, your entire strategy may change.

Tactically, you will be most aware of the Fronts, and trying to juggle their constant advances on Moscow.  Which Front demands the most attention also tends to organically shift throughout the game, so as to not become monotonous.  Occasionally you will be forced to respond to a mandatory loss of political levels, which would end your game.  However I find these instances rare.

My biggest complain, is that streakiness in the die rolls can end your game in a hurry, and there is nothing you can do.  Roll below a 4 a dozen times in a row, and that is just it.  Game over.  Better luck next time.  It can can grow to be remarkably frustrating that your hard earned success can be completely overtaken by a few arbitrary die rolls.

I have begun to wonder how how absurdly luck dependant winning is.  Because if you boil it down, this is a game of nothing but repeated dice rolls.  You may roll the dice 100 times in any given game.  If you fail any 6 of those consecutively, you've probably just lost.  Now with 50/50 odds on each roll (being generous) the odds of any sequence of 6 fails in an overall sequence of 100 is extremely high!  Now obviously that is completely reductionist, and that is not all there is to the game.  But it's something to think about.

The good news is that the expansion includes optional rules that can be applied to the base game, which make the game more fair.  You can choose to start with the Cheka Reorganization Token, which allows you to ignore an event, shuffling it back into the deck, and it gives you two actions.  You can also choose to use Reserve Offensive tokens as tie breakers.  So if you need to beat a 3 during an Offensive Action, and you only roll a 3, you can use a Reserve Token to break the tie.  Both of these optional rules make the game easier, but more importantly, make the game feel more fair, and give you back a feeling of control that bad luck takes away.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

Soviet Dawn is definitely a relatively simple game.  I'm not sure the dilemmas presented are the most interesting in the world.  It's usually fairly obvious where your efforts are needed most.  I typically find that I'm stumped probably 4 or 6 times through a given game, although a lot more if I make it especially far through the Event deck.  So it's hard to say this game has especially good dilemmas.  Especially since recently I've been blown away by the quality of the AI in Field Commander Napoleon.

However the weight of the dilemmas in this game is about right for it's complexity.  Soviet Dawn plays so fluidly, you won't get hung up on it.  If the decisions are easy to make, you just make them, roll your die, and then draw the next card.  You don't get bogged down in game state tracking, so the lack of critical thinking on any given turn, even 3 or 4 turns in a row, doesn't stand out.  Just quickly roll, apply the result, and move on!

So Soviet Dawn might be a simple game.  But the depth of it's decisions feels perfectly balanced against the game's length and complexity.

What could have improved the dilemmas?

Being the first game in the States of Siege series shows.  While I haven't had the opportunity to play them all yet, the series goes on to introduce all manner of additional resources to manage.  Lots of hand management, tableau management and managing leaders and troops.  So I feel like any improvements I could suggest on the dilemmas have already been done in other entries to the series.

As I already mentioned, there is a small expansion which greatly expands on the options available to you, and which can be applied to the base game without the need for any extra components.  It also adds 12 new cards if you purchase it, which aren't anything too outrageous.

Some of the options it adds are the aforementioned Reserve Offensive tokens as tie breakers.  It also introduces Decisive Defeats and Decisive Victories, which occur whenever your roll a natural 1 or a natural 6.  Fronts won't automatically withdrawal anymore either, and always require a die roll.  They are relatively simple changes, but they add some great nuance to your decision making.  They do a good job of balancing out the helpful optional rules, and making the game a more consistent experience overall.

Physical component design and limitations?

At first glance, the components are trash.  And that is really hard for me to say, since I've developed a lot of affection for this game.  But the counters feel like they are going to fall apart on you.  They are lightweight, and whatever glue that holds the front to the back feels like it will come apart at any moment.  The rule booklet isn't even stapled, so the pages tend to splay everywhere.  The cards are too flimsy to bridge shuffle.  The board is actually ok though.  I'm also not a fan of the small plastic bag it comes in.  It requires you to fold the board and the rules into quarters, and the edges of the zipper constantly bang and dog ear the edges of both.  I've actually taken an idea I saw on BGG and begun using a 8/5" x 11" page protector to store Soviet Dawn.  I only have to fold the map and the rules in half, and it feels much more roomy for the cards and tokens.

That's much better!

Now, all the negativity out of the way, the components are well designed from a gameplay perspective.  There is a place for everything on the board.  All the counters have artwork and titles on the front, and the effects they represent on the back.  Every permanent event has a counter, with a socket on the board, to remind you it's occurred.  Plus the board itself has reminders, references and charts for everything you need.

What could have been better?

So the raw physical quality of the components could obviously be better.  But here is the thing.  I have to let Victory Point Games off the hook.  I don't do that lightly, but hear me out.  Near as I understand it, all their games are self published, and print on demand.  Because the demand is small for games this niche.  It's not economically viable to do print runs, and then sit on the pile of inventory.

There is just something to be said for seeing a game you are interested in, and just buying it.  It's a very positive experience.  The situation I'm most familiar with when it comes to niche wargames is GMT's P500 list.  I sign up for a game I want, wait a year until they have enough pre-orders, wait another year while they make space in their printing schedule, and then I finally get my copy.  That or I pay double retail for a used copy on eBay.

I love GMT's P500 list, and it's given me many great games, with outstanding production values.  But I'm glad there is another company doing it a different way.  Soviet Dawn is a great game, albeit incredibly niche.  Without print on demand, it could easily be 5 years between reprints, if they happened at all.  Were that the case, I never would have gotten to play this fantastic game.  Not to mention the fact that instead of 5 or 6 games in this series, plus expansions, we'd probably have just 1 or 2.

Long term prospects?

I've played Soviet Dawn every day since I got it.  Mostly twice a day.  The most I've played it is 5 times in one day!  I'm absolutely in love with it, although it is not without it's shortcomings.  It has a very high luck factor, and there can be stretches where the game feels like it plays itself.  Especially when you are losing.  You may even quickly sour to it after losing 4 games in a row, only 6 cards in.  But even taking all that into consideration, I really enjoy this game, and at the moment it's my most enjoyable solitaire game.  Plus every complaint I possess, the expansion does a fantastic job of addressing.

As for the States of Siege series, from everything I've read it only gets better from here.  Zulus on the Ramparts, Empires in America and Ottoman Sunset are all high on my list after the amazing first impression Soviet Dawn has made on me.  I'm eagerly looking forward to trying each and every game in the States of Siege series.


  1. Glad you enjoyed your first foray into our States of SiegeTM series of games. Of course, we have a lot of other solitaire games NOT in that series, and many more in playtesting right now. You might we aware that we've upped our production quality a bit on our newer games, so that is also something you can look forward to!

    1. Yes I experienced the improved production quality first hand. I had ordered Soviet Dawn along with the expansion, and sadly the cards were mismatched. The expansion had the older, smaller cards. Thankfully your customer service was extremely helpful, and already got cards to me that matched! I'm definitely ordering directly from you guys next time.

      And the full sized cards are much appreciated.