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Hold Fast: Russia 1941-1942 Review


I’d wager that the Eastern Front of World War 2 is the most common setting for board games, ever. More so than the far future, or a Tolkienesque fantasy or even satisfying the whims of Renaissance nobles. So why do Worthington Games think we need another?

The answer is that there isn’t another Eastern Front game quite like this, at least not in the modern canon. It’s a block game, like Eastfront, but that’s a far less approachable title. It’s low unit density like No Retreat, but that’s a far more complex title. It’s easy for any gamer to pick up like Conflict of Heroes, but that’s a far less realistic title.

Instead, Hold Fast bears comparison to the best pick up and play block games, titles like Hammer of the Scots and Julius Caesar. If anything, it’s even more stripped down. In just four pages of rules you get a passable simulation of the Eastern Front and a thick chunk of excitement and strategy.

The way the designer has stripped everything right down to the barest essentials is marvelous to behold. It’s like a scavenger removing everything functional from a burned out car and then using it to rebuild a go-kart. Nothing is wasted, and everything re-purposed to maximum effect.

Both sides have a pool of “replacement points”, or RP’s, which drive the game. You spend them to move units, activate them for fighting, and to refit and redeploy units that have been damaged or destroyed.

Using one central resource for everything immediately puts players in a quandary about what to spend them on. But it’s also realistic, since all depend on resources that make a unit fit for combat.

After this masterstroke the design just tweaks the way players receive and spend these points to do most of the heavy lifting. Adding a destroyed unit back to the map and long-distance rail movement cost more than mere step replacement or standard marches. So the Russian player, with weaker units farther from supply centers, initially has to pay more just to stay in the game.

So it begins with the Reich tearing up the Russian front lines like confetti. The advance feels unstoppable, and the Russian player will be nursing his point pool like heart’s blood. The Soviets need every last one to keep up the production belt of replacing destroyed units, and pushing them forward to throw up desperate new defensive lines.

While the Germans start out looking invincible, the Axis player will eventually consider the victory conditions. Winning depends on capturing two of Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad and the latter two look a long way east. He might be able to advance across the map with impunity, but maintaining supply lines – a simple matter of unit chains to board edge – isn’t so easy.

Then the mud hits, and the Germans lose a dice of points each turn. Then the mud freezes with the oncoming snow, and they lose two dice of points. Just as the pincer is scything shut onto Moscow, everything literally freezes to a halt. The Soviets, meanwhile, get to shore up their line. Then there’s a steady trickle of Guard units on the reinforcement track which hit hard enough to start pushing the Germans back.

And the rest, as they say, is history.


While the overall ebb and flow of the game might be somewhat predictable, there’s plenty of dice to thrill and detail to puzzle over. Combat is a matter of both sides throwing their dice and hitting on fives or sixes. One pip over one battle in one victory city can be the difference between victory and defeat. The fact the game wraps in about three hours makes that far more edge of the seat excitement than annoying over-randomness.

The German commander has the same dilemma as his historical counterpart: whether to advance evenly or make a powerful thrust to the north or south. Both players will need to watch the supply lines like hawks, alert for any chance to break in and cut off vulnerable units.

The latter is a particular threat thanks to yet another clever piece of design. There’s no distinct movement and combat in this game. Units can move and fight or fight and move as they please. This makes an excellent recreation of blitzkreig tactics at virtually no rules cost. First you attack to open up the line, then advance those spent units through to maintain supply. After you can bring fresh units via the gap to punch at new targets for an encirclement.

On the flip side, it can be hard to track which units have done what. The game provides no markers for this purpose although it’s not hard to artifice your own. They won’t look out of place, either, because the production values on this game are rock bottom.

This isn’t a light accusation. Even amongst other wargames, a genre renowned for flimsy card and ugly art, Hold Fast stands out as an eyesore. The block stickers are no more than a red star or an iron cross and some numbers. The board looks to have stuck together from the thinnest card known to humanity, garnished with bits of clip art. It isn’t even functional – it’s hard to tell swamp from Germany, and some of the unit starting positions are not clear.

Those printed positions are symptomatic of the other major flaw in this otherwise tight and imaginative game. There’s only one scenario, and not a great deal to mix things up for unexpected surprises. You’re likely to find that the replay value on this isn’t quite up to that of some of its peers.

That makes it relatively poor value for money, since it comes with the premium price tag common to many niche games. And that’s a shame. Because while this isn’t quite up to the standards of the all time block classics, it only falls short by a whisker. It’s a superb introductory game and deserves to be better known. But when it looks so bad and costs so much, the chances are it never will be.

Fading Glory Review


I’ve always wanted to like traditional hex and counter wargames more than I actually do. The idea of recreating the strategic intricacies of historical battles is wonderful, but the execution too often involves hundreds of counters, irritating mental maths and quickly becomes dry and stolid. The aspect of Generalship they seem to reward is logistics rather than strategy.

Enter Fading Glory. It’s a collection of four scenarios based on Victory Point Game’s Napoleonic 20 series which is simple to learn, has no more than 20 counters per side, and will play in an hour or two. It’s been given a visual makeover by GMT who’ve added lovely art, mounted boards and a new scenario, Salamanca, not in the original VPG lineup.

It’s a luscious package, a cut above the bland art and drab components that most wargames are saddled with. Unfortunately the revision process has completely screwed up the rules. It really isn’t a difficult game but with rules sections that are never used, discrepancies between the rulebook and the player aid and often confusing terminology, neophyte players are unlikely to realise that. It should be simple, but has been made maddeningly inaccessible.

Thankfully GMT has already addressed most of the issues with a FAQ. Yes, they should have got it right the first time, but in this instance the publisher deserves to be cut some slack. Not only because are GMT the nicest, most gamer-friendly publisher in the business, but also because Fading Glory is an excellent game.

When hex and counter games get it right, what results is an absorbing compound of puzzling over maneuvers, planning ahead and strategizing with the undeniable thrills of raw chaos. In the past, smaller scale games have had trouble in recreating this heady mixture simply because they lack the potential for variety that keeps things interesting.

Fading Glory doesn’t just break that mold but grinds it into powder. For starters you’ve got four distinct scenarios here, each with its own board and counter set. Then you’ll find that they have super-fast “historical” variants based on late battle positioning, and other alternative history options to explore. Add some optional rules such as face-down counters for fog of war and personalised leader counters which completely transform the way the game plays and you’ve got a recipe for enormous replayability.

But the game is compelling even without all of these options. The standard rules set has zones of control and a combat resolution table and all the things you’d expect of a stripped down hex wargame. But it does two simple things that make it incredibly exciting.

The first is that each side has a morale track, which wears down as units are defeated in combat and results in a loss if it reaches zero. Nothing new there. The catch is that these points can be spent for a significant advantage: extra movement, more favourable combat odds or a better chance of reviving destroyed units. Morale is rationed incredibly thinly – it starts at less than ten and rarely increases – so spending it is like amputating fingers. But the temptation to blow it all to achieve one decisive action is a constant torment.


The other is that adjacent units all have to fight each other: there’s no ganging up on a single victim if it has supporting counters close by, and no passing up a combat just because the odds are unfavourable. This makes every movement phase where you’re in striking distance of the enemy a maze of thorns as you desperately try to plan around the eventualities and buy a slight advantage, and it means the game punishes mistakes with extreme severity. It also seems appropriately Napleonic, since it would seem difficult to coordinate the monolithic formations of the time with a light enough touch to avoid engaging nearby enemy.

There are other small touches of period flavour, such as the ability of cavalry to counterattack or withdraw before being assaulted by infantry and a lovely no take-backs rule that’s designed to mimic the not infrequent blunders of command and control that plagued the age of rifles. Each scenario also has a small deck of event cards related to the way the battle unfolded. But on the whole, and perhaps appropriately for a game at the one counter per division scale, there’s not a lot beyond the scenarios that make it feel historically Napoleonic.

And annoyingly, having built such a wonderful framework for them, it’s the scenarios themselves which are the weakest link. They just don’t seem to have quite enough valid strategic options to explore and regrettably the most famous battle, Waterloo, is the worst offender in this regard. I guess it’s the same old problem of insufficient variety that so plagues other small wargames. But thankfully the tactical nuances in Fading Glory are sufficient to make up for slightly staid strategy.

The remaining two scenarios are set in Russia, the historical Borodino and the alternative history Smolensk. All of them follow a slightly unusual pattern of allowing several turns of pre-battle maneuvering and buildup before forces get close enough to actually clash. And when they do come to blow, all hell can break lose as the dice mercilessly crush your tactical options. It’s not so much the combat mechanics that are responsible for this. They correctly reward the use of overwhelming force, and crowding enemy units before combat. Rather it’s the big morale adjustments you get when you manage to break a unit. But as a commander, you feel largely in control and the sudden swings of fortune add considerably to the thrills and charm. The small number of pieces mean there are relatively few dice rolls, but almost every one feels crucial to success.

It’s unfortunate that the game made such a mess of presenting the rules, else we’d have had a strong contender for the best-ever introductory wargames on our hands. As it stands we’ve got a fascinating game which utilizes creative tweaks to a tried and tested formula and wraps it in a manageable package that should give seasoned gamers of any stripe hours of pleasure. The martial glory of Wellington and Napoleon might be on the wane, but on this evidence their gaming stock is as strong as ever.