Monday, February 17, 2014

No Retreat: The Russian Front Review

I don't quite remember how No Retreat: The Russian Front got my attention.  It was just one of those games that I saw mentioned here and there.  By the time it got my attention enough for me to investigate further, the deluxe GMT edition was already out of print.  There was the Victory Point Games edition, but I really wanted the mounted board and high quality counters that came with the GMT version.  Now the situation is even worse, with VPG no longer offering an edition, and GMT's version still out of print.  Regardless, one day I was looking for No Retreat: The Russian Front on eBay, and was lucky enough to win a copy for only $40!  I was the only person who even bid on it.  Truly a singular occurrence.

No Retreat is an operational level wargame taking place on the front between Germany and Russia in World War II.  It was designed by Carl Paradis, released by VPG in 2008, and re-released by GMT in 2011.  It's a wargame in the classic hex and counter style, with an emphasis on enemy zones of control, supply, and combat result tables.  It also introduces an engaging modern element with it's masterful use of event cards, which simultaneously represent special abilities, reinforcements, rail capacity and combat initiative on your opponent's turn.  Each individual scenario plays in about 2 hours for me, and the campaign would likely take me all day.

Rule Summary

This is going to be a higher level rules overview than I usually do, because there is simply a great many edge cases and exceptions in No Retreat.  Hopefully I don't miss anything too important.

To begin, you'll select a scenario.  There are 6 to choose from, each one composing a major campaign from the overall war.  You can also use the scenarios as starting and stopping points.  You would use the starting conditions from an earlier scenario, and the victory conditions from a later one.  There is also the full campaign, where you play the war straight from beginning to end, and a tournament version of the campaign.

The scenario chosen will instruct you on how to set up the units on the map, how many cards each player starts with, who goes first, and the victory conditions.  In No Retreat, the Germans begin with the initiative, and the onus is on them to achieve a set of victory conditions, or the Russians win by default.  Halfway through the war, the initiative shifts, and the roles reverse.  The victory conditions usually have a victory point element, and a more conditional element.  For example, in the first scenario, Germany needs 21 victory points, or control of Moscow and one other Objective location.

The first scenario all set up.

The overall turn structure has you implementing events first.  Then the German player goes, followed by the Soviet player.  Then you move onto the next turn, and do it all again, until you hit the last turn of the scenario and check for victory.

The first thing you will want to do on a turn, is look over all the special conditions for it.  Every turn has a season, which will effect movement, combat, and more.  Many turns also have special events.  Frequently these events upgrade the abilities of the Soviet Army, or cause the Germans to lose victory points based on events taking place in other theaters.

On a players half of the turn, they will first draw new cards.  As I already alluded to, cards serve many purposes in this game.  The most obvious is playing them for the event printed on the card.  These events usually defy expectations in some way, and really make the game unpredictable and exciting.  They have many other uses that I'll cover as we go on.

After players have drawn their hand, they will have a chance to upgrade or replenish units on the map.  Next they get to bring on new units, either by rebuilding destroyed units, or by receiving units who are scheduled to enter the game on certain turns.  All of these activities, except the scheduled units, require spending cards from your hand.  It can be quite costly to rebuild your defeated army.

Next, players get to move all their units.  Each unit has a printed movement value on their counter.  Some terrain requires more movement points than others, and tanks usually have a harder time of rough terrain than other units.  Players can also place units on trains.  They'll be removed from the map, and can be placed back down quite liberally at the end of their turn.  Enemy zones of control also have an enormous impact on movement.

Almost every unit in the game has a zone of control, that extends into every adjacent hex.  Your own zone of control doesn't effect you much.  But the enemy zones of control have many ramifications.  When a unit enters an enemy zone of control (EZOC) it must stop.  A unit exiting an EZOC must spend an extra movement point.  Units cannot move from one EZOC to another, unless a friendly unit is already in it's destination to cover it's approach.  EZOCs also block supply, which I'll get to later.

In this illustration, the Russians have utilized
counter blows to break up an overwhelming
German attack.
After a player has completed all their movement, including entraining units, they begin the combat phase.  They have 5 combat counters which they will use to declare combat.  They just put the counters down on the units they wish to attack.  Then the opponent has an opportunity to declare counterblows.  They must discard a card from their hand for each one.  A counterblow is just another attack you are going to force your opponent to make.  You goad them into action.  Why would you do this?  Well it's very useful in diverting forces away from another attack.  You can also force vulnerable units to engage in an unfavorable battle.  You will learn to love counterblows.

Once all voluntary and involuntary combats have been declared, the active player may resolve them in any order they wish.  This is when the combat result table comes in.  Every unit has a strength value.  You add up the total strength of the attackers, and take it's ratio to the total strength of the defenders.  Then they shift that result up or down depending on the terrain, season, special events, and the units involved.  Now they roll a die, and consult the table for the result of the combat.  These results range from an enemy counter attack at worst, to all the defenders being forced to retreat and take step losses at best.  Attackers which successfully drive the enemy from a hex get to advance into, and often through it.  Advancing is a powerful way to take additional ground, and surround enemy units putting them out of supply.  This is especially the case since advancing units do not get stuck in EZOCs, like they would moving normally.

So now is a good time to talk about supply.  Cities and units all need to be able to trace supply at the beginning of every turn.  Cities must be able to trace an unobstructed path to your side of the board to be in supply.  Units must be able to trace a path of 4 hexes to an in supply friendly city.  However, enemy units and EZOCs block supply.  A unit that is out of supply for a full turn, or which is destroyed while out of supply, surrenders.  Surrender is pretty terrible, since it awards your opponent an extra victory point, and it's more costly to rebuild a surrendered unit.  If you are foolish enough to put your own units out of supply on your turn, there will be nothing you can do.

This poor Russian unit has no supply, and will surrender
at the end of the turn unless the Russian player can break him out

There are two main sources of victory points.  Controlling cities, and forcing enemy units to surrender.  Each one is worth a point.  Often the victory points you are required to earn to win a scenario are rather lofty, and difficult to achieve from cities alone.  So forcing as many enemy units to surrender as possible can be pivotal.

As I said, play goes back and forth between the German and Soviet player, until the last turn of the scenario.  You then check the victory conditions for the side with the initiative.  If they satisfied their victory conditions, they win.  Otherwise by default the non-initiative player wins.

Timelapse of play.

How accessible is the game to new players?

For an operational level World War II game, I find No Retreat to be extremely accessible.  It has very easy core mechanics.  Movement, combat, zones of control and supply are all pretty easy to grasp, and aren't needlessly complicated.  Exceptions from the perspective of the overall game structure are rather limited.  You won't be skipping or heavily modifying entire phases of the game.

There is also a relatively low number of counters for each side, as well as a map with a fairly low number of hexes.  This is no monster game.  It gives you enough space, and enough units to be clever with, but no more.  The numbers that frequently get thrown around are that each side will have no more than about 20 units on the map at a time.  This really lets you focus on an overall strategy, as opposed to the minutia of ordering around several feet worth of counters.

What could have been done better?

While there are no modifiers in terms of say, which units can attack which, every turn has a slew of movement and attack modifiers to remember.

It sometimes gets tricky remembering all the modifiers that are in effect every turn.  I usually keep the manual open to the page spread with all the seasonal effects and turn events throughout the game.  Additionally, Russia gets a significant upgrade to it's army every 3 or 4 turns.  There is usually a bit of lag between gaining this new ability, and putting it to good use.  For example, it's just not easy to go from not being able to stack any of your units, to being able to stack your tanks.  It opens up a whole new array of strategic possibilities you've gotten used to operating without for hours.

I need to keep the manual open to this page.  By the way, see
all that red ink?  Those are corrections from the printed rules.

The weather is also constantly shifting, and other more singular events are constantly occurring.  The first few turns seem to be the most chaotic, with nearly every turn having a unique special rule you'll never use again to model how the war ramped up.

To be honest, I'm not sure I've ever played a session of No Retreat 100% correctly.

How does the new player versus experienced player match up go?

The game definitely rewards experience.  I'd even say it rewards knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the historical strategies.  It's very easy for inexperienced players to get distracted, and forget their objectives when they have the initiative.  Time is heavily against the player with the initiative, and they need to keep their eye on the prize.  I've found it's usually better to give new players the side which plays an obstructionist role.  That way they win by simply keeping you from succeeding, which is easier to conceptualize and the more reactive role.

What could have been done better?

No Retreat has fantastic designers notes, and even a strategy primer.  So an ambitious new player can get up to speed quickly.  There is also a fantastic section of detailed examples, showcasing various problems you may face, and how to potentially solve them.  They remind me of Go puzzles.  It's among the best starter material I've seen for a game of this depth, and there is not much more you could possibly do to help new players into the deep end of No Retreat.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

I always hear about how people play wargames for the narrative.  I usually don't get much narrative off the wargames I play.  They are very cerebral exercises for me.  However No Retreat: The Russian Front is the first game I've played that really told a story to me.  All the special rules for each turn can make the game slow going, but wow do they bring a lot of flavor to it.

The evolution of the Russian army.

The most prominent part of all these special rules is how the Russian army evolves.  They start off extremely sparse and weak.  They are brittle, unstackable, with no armor, and pitiful attack and movement values.  However by the end of the game, they represent this unstoppable avalanche of manpower that matches, and then exceeds all the abilities of the Axis armies.  Their coordination improves, allowing them to stack.  They can take hits better and get free upgrades on units.  They get tanks and the unique advantages those confer, as well as shock units, which the Germans never have.  It's done extremely well, and conveys a real sense of growth in the Soviet capabilities beyond merely getting more units.

There is also a heavy emphasis, thanks to the counterblow, EZOC and supply rules, of maintaining a stable front.  You really cannot be reckless with your units, or you'll find them out of supply, or on their own with no units to cover their flank with counterblows.  But time is never on your side either.  Often you only have 4 or 5 turns to score 5 to 10 victory points.  And half of those turns could be mud or winter which really spoils your advances!  So you'll always feel stuck between caution and aggression.

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?

The wording on many of the cards and rules needs serious cleaning up.  We are constantly discussing what we think certain events actually do.  The wording is just frequently ambiguous.  Do they modify a standard game mechanic?  Do they replace it?  Do they happen before or after it?  The frequent ambiguities and misunderstandings cause a lot of missed opportunities in the card play, or the creation of impossible strategies when you put your hopes on a card doing something it doesn't actually do.

The rules are also a bit of a disaster.  The rules as printed have been extensively corrected, and you will pretty much be required to print off the latest living rules.  Event these have a few bits of errata you'll need to check the message boards for.  I've also just not found the rules to be that great of a reference.  I'll know there is a relevant exception to a rule, but I can never find it in a timely manner.  Often it's not until after the game is over, and I'm reading the entire rulebook over again at home, that I can finally find it.

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

This is a very strategic game.  The quickest way to lose as the initiative player is to engage in a battle just because that's where a battle can be, and your odds are good.  Every first time Axis player gets bogged down around Odessa their first game and blows it.  This game more than any I've yet played has embodied the phrase "Win the battle, lose the war".  So many times you'll crush your opponent, only to realize you wasted precious resources not taking any valuable ground, or getting any closer to your objectives.

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

Your second most valuable resource.
The first is time.
My favorite part of No Retreat is it's nail biting hand management.  Your hand of cards represents the events printed on them.  But you also burn them off to bring back defeated units, speed units across the map by rail, and perform life saving counter-blows.  You will never, ever, have enough cards to do everything you want, and I love it.

I also love the way enemy zones of control are sticky.  This adds a fantastic element of thoughtful maneuver, and places an enormous emphasis on the advances after combat.  It can also be a struggle to keep everyone in supply while you are on the offensive.  You've got a ticking clock, but if you are too aggressive, you leave your supply routes exposed.

Physical component design and limitations?

Alternate counters?  I feel so spoiled.
The components are simply amazing.  The counters are thick, large and have rounded corners.  The map is enormous, mounted, and it's quite clear what's going on.  The units mostly use NATO symbols, but there is also an alternate counter set for the tanks with more interesting icons.  On top of this is a good chunk of counters for various optional rules and units.  It's an amazingly complete package, and nothing was skimped on in terms of component quality or quantity.

What could have been better?

I've already lambasted the printed manual.  But the reference sheets could also use some work.  The ones that come with the game don't cover a great deal.  They just show the steps of a turn, the CRTs, the Terrain Effects Chart and Turn Track.  All things which are already printed on the board!  Given all that, I found this rule summary to be invaluable in determining the minutia of play.  Mostly things like where rebuilt, shattered or entrained units can re-enter play, since those rules especially seem to have a lot of conditions for as often as you use them.

Is this really helping?
Now I didn't mention cadre units in my rule summary, but basically they are units you can bring in to replace a destroyed unit.  They represent the survivors.  So as a last nitpick, I also find the holding box for the cadre units completely useless, since when I leave them there, I forget I even have them.  It's pretty important to remember that.  Now we just hold onto the cadre units we receive in front of us.

Long term prospects?

No Retreat is my absolute favorite operational level game.  One day I aspire to play a complete campaign.  But I find the 6 bite size scenarios fantastic.  They provide you ample starting and stopping points to try out different strategies.  And there are so many strategies you can pursue.  I played the first scenario, the Barbarossa campaign, probably 4 times in a row, and each one played out remarkable different thanks to the event cards and variance in my own approaches.  This is my go to World War II game, and no other even interest me anymore.

I'm only let down that it's been allowed to become unavailable.  Right now it has less than 150 preorders on GMT's P500 list, far short of it's needed 500.  Also at the start of the year, Victory Point Games pulled it from their site, so you can't even get that version.  It's such a shame too, because this is really one of the best games I've ever played.  It's not often playing the exact same scenario repeatedly interests me at all.  More than anything I like variety in my games.  But No Retreat somehow pulls it off.  If you have any interest in a World War II game at all, I'd urge you to go to No Retreat's preorder page and place your order.  It could be a long wait, but I guarantee it's worth it.

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