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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.

Hell’s Gate Review


If you’re in the habit of picking through lists of board and video games about World War 2, you’ll see a lot of names you recognise from deeply-buried folk memories and history classes. Normandy and the Bulge, El Alamein and Monte Cassino, Stalingrad and Kursk. But there’s one battle which seems to attract considerably more interest from game designers than it does the general public: the Korsun Pocket. And that’s what Hell’s Gate is all about.

It has an interesting pedigree, this game. Originally designed by an university lecturer as a means of demonstrating the dynamics of encirclement operations in-class, it found its way into the academic literature and from there to Victory Point Games who’ve produced this lovely print. The soot-besmirched counters that result from their laser cutting process might bother some people, but there’s no doubting the durability of the thick card or the evocatively polar board art. You can almost hear the icy winds sweeping across the steppe as you play.

But how does it play? Well, it’s a masterclass in how the tried and tested foundations of hex and counter gaming can result in startlingly unusual games as a result of very simple tweaks. The need to fit it into university classes ensures it’s fast playing and easy to lean, especially if you’ve got any experience of the genre at all. However, several of the single scenario’s eight turns have their own unique special rules which are a pain to internalize and apply.

The first things veterans will probably notice is that you attack and then move, rather than the more traditional sequence of move and attack. This is partly an accessibility issue because it removes the need for additional rules to cover breakthrough movement after successful attacks. Which would, in truth, have been absurdly cumbersome for a game with so few hexes and units.

The other key oddity on display is the retreat rules. Normally retreat is something enforced onto defending units as the result of an attack. But in Hell’s Gate, the defender can choose to retreat to avoid taking a step loss, as long as the combat result doesn’t do more damage than the unit has steps. And given that the combat resolution table mostly deals in one or two damage, and most units have two steps, retreat tends to be a viable option to save your troops.

That’s hugely unrealistic, of course. There isn’t a commander in history who wouldn’t have given a limb for the opportunity to choose whether his troops stood and fought to the last man or fell back. But realism at that level isn’t the point of the game. Its function is to demonstrate the logistics of an encirclement, the command decisions faced by the aggressors and the trapped, and in that respect it succeeds admirably.


The Russian player starts with some powerful tank units to the north and south of the board, and some temptingly weak links in the Germans lines to launch them at. But right away there are choice and compromises that need to be made. While a southern breakthrough is all but assured, the north is a harder prospect. The game allows attackers to sacrifice a unit step to improve the results, but doing so makes a German counterattack more likely. Or a weaker attack against truly feeble opposition in the northeast is a possibility, but it would leave less troops cut off.

Eventually, the German units are almost certain to be cut off, although the amount of time this takes can have a significant impact on how the game plays out. Then the challenge is for the Germans to try and extract as many troops as possible. Early on, actually breaking the encirclement and re-establishing supply lines is a realistic possibility. Later it becomes a matter of pushing to get the trapped units and their would-be relievers as close to each other as possible to make the most of a last-turn “breakout” special rule (with important errata) which can rescue units without combat.

The reason for this special rule seems largely to be the result of that odd retreat mechanic. The fact retreating is always an option makes it near-impossible for the Germans to actually penetrate the Soviet lines beyond the first couple of turns. This is, I suspect, an academic decision: the game is supposed to teach about encirclement and not daring (and ahistorical) rescue missions. But it can be pretty anti-climactic, especially for the German player who is left with little to do in the mid to late game.

Fortunately the game plays well solo. Indeed I actually think that’s probably how it’s best enjoyed. There are other minor niggles for two players, chief amongst them a tendency for unlucky dice roll results to have catastrophic effects. There’s a 1 in 3 chance each turn, for instance, for the weather to turn from snow to mud which is an enormous hindrance to whoever is on the offensive at the time (usually the Russians) and the combat resolution table can also throw up anomalies.

But as a solitaire exercise in teaching yourself about encirclement, and particularly about the encirclement of Korsun, it works very well. While the small scale and single scenario obviously limit replay value there’s a surprising amount of variety to explore. I’ve seen games that conform to the history but others where the Russians slowly built an impenetrable wall, where the Germans made continual south-western breakthroughs, where there was no encirclement and the Axis smashed a red army reinforcement pool to pieces. In other words, it serves it’s stated purpose very well indeed.


If You Want Peace, Prepare to Wargame

Wargames viewed from different angles

One of the things I love about NoHighScores is the fact that it’s a game site on which staff and users remember that the word “games” has a much, much wider reach than your nearest computing device. But since starting to scuff my shoes here on a regular basis, there’s at least one major genre that seems to be missing from the coverage, and that’s historical wargames.

That’s not entirely surprising. Although wargames are one of the most easily-defined sub-genres of the board game world they have pretty much zero penetration into the wider hobby consciousness. The cartoon at the top says it all in terms of misconceptions about this sector of the hobby. And the hobbyists don’t help themselves either. Wargamers put an emphasis on simulation in their designs and that often means games that are two-player only, immensely complex and long-playing with huge downtime. The infamous Campaign For North Africa is the ultimate example of this trend, with a three volume rulebook, 1800 counters and a 1500 hour play-time. Given the focus on re-fighting historical battles a desire for simulation is perhaps understandable. What’s less so is the apparently conservative mindset of a lot of wargamers who started out on the hobby in the 70’s and seem to want to see endless minor variations on world-war 2 eastern front “panzer pusher” games and who insist on using impenetrable military and historical jargon that’ll put off experienced board gamers from other spheres who might feel qualified to tackle the rules sets these things demand. For evidence you need look no further than the primary internet gathering place for wargamers, Consimworld, which uses an interface so arcane that even people who braved the bulletin boards and newsgroups of the very early web find it hard to navigate.

And yet none of this really need be the case. The manner in which this hobby segment actively turns off new recruits is long recognised and lamented by the more forward-thinking designers and commentators in the sector and there has been an active, and growing movement over the past ten years to learn some design lessons from other sectors of the hobby and push out some clever and innovative designs that extract maximum simulation value from minimum rules and play time alongside the traditional eastern front fare. Indeed, given the relatively stagnant state of European-style game design right now, and the manner in which American-style design is dominated by a very small number of big publishers, I’d say that modern wargames are currently at the cutting edge of game design. If you don’t dip your toe into this market from time to time, you’ll be missing out on some seriously interesting games.

So if you’re going to take the plunge into this sticky and potentially impervious morass, what’s a good place to start? Well the first thing to say is that a big part of the pleasure in playing wargames is in picking titles that represent some history that interests you, and that should be your first winnowing point. If you want to re-live the sort of personal stories of modern warfare that make up the bulk of TV and films about war then you’ll want to pick a small-scale (tactical) level game about a 20th century conflict. If you’re in to cable TV documentaries about ancient generals then take a look a mid-scale (operational) games set in the ancient world. If books about economic and social history during warfare sound more your thing then you’ll probably want a top scale (strategic) game, perhaps from the Napoleonic or American Civil War era. Partly thanks to the manner in which one designer can invent a mechanical basis for a wargame, and others can adapt it to battles that interest them from roughly the same period the palette of potential wargames is huge.

Given this advice and the enormous diversity of games on offer, it’d be hypocritical of me to say I can offer you a basket of catch-all introductory wargames to suit all-comers. Rather I’m just going to focus on a small handful that are both suitable for new players and belong in that small basket of highly innovative designs that I mentioned earlier in the article. You should be able to teach and play most of these games to completion in a 2-4 hour session, and all but one allow for multiple players in addition to the more traditional two.

My first pick is the Conflict of Heroes series from Academy games, and its first on the list not only because it’s brilliant but because it was tailor made as an entry point into the hobby. It’s a tactical level game played on a traditional hex map with traditional counters representing a squad, a tank or a weapon team but there’s nothing traditional about the component quality. Instead of the paper maps and flimsy two-tone counters you’ll find in most wargames, all these games have mounted boards and big, thick, ready-punched counters lavished in glorious 3D artwork. The rules may look daunting at first but they’re introduced piecemeal for easy digestion and you can jump in and play several of the scenarios after just the first few pages. It’s also worth remembering that tactical games are usually fairly complex due to the level of detail they need to represent and Conflict of Heroes does an excellent job of jettisoning all the extraneous rubbish and focusing down on a system that is exciting, challenging and which strikes an enviably brilliant balance between randomness and depth. Again, unlike usually plodding pace of tactical games, which stands in stark contrast to the adrenaline-fueled action they purport to depict, these games are very fast playing with minimal down time. Currently there are two editions of this game, set in different times on the Eastern Front, but more are planned across several fronts of World War 2, and possibly extending to other modern warfare theatres as well.

Napoleon's TriumphNext up we have a game that I once stated was the best-looking game in the world, ever, thanks to the manner in which it mimics the map layout of a battle that you might see in the tent of an eighteenth century general, Napoleon’s Triumph from Simmons Games. This title also gets another top accolade from me, as I reckon it, and it’s younger sibling Bonaparte at Marengo are possibly the most innovative games I’ve ever seen. They share a basic concept of having units printed on wooden blocks that you can then turn away from the enemy to create a fog-of-war effect with a large number of other, more venerable wargames but other than that I have difficulty spotting where designer Bowen Simmons could possibly have got the rest of his ideas from. Indeed it’s such an unusual system that I’m going to cop out and not even attempt to describe how it works: suffice to say that it’s a completely non-random and truly fiendish combination of chess and poker that leverages the hidden information of what units are where to create a fantastically deep game that’s nevertheless filled with nerve-wracking bluffs and evasions. It also manages to elegantly model the slow breakdown in command and control that was such a feature of pre-radio warfare. But that level of invention also works against the game: it’s not complex by any means but it remains tough to learn due to a lack of familiar concepts to latch on to. However, to miss out on a game of such startling brilliance over that small hurdle would be a tragedy. If you don’t fancy the Napoleonic theme the designer has a new American Civil War game based on the same system, Guns of Gettysburg, out later this year.

I wasn’t able to completely ignore two player titles for this little list but Washington’s War is the only 2-player game I felt Washington's Warcompelled to add. It belongs to a popular sub-genre called card-driven games (CDG’s) which also contains my favourite game of all time, Twilight Struggle (which is arguably not a wargame and so didn’t make the list on its own right). Indeed Washington’s War is a redevelopment of the very first CDG that kicked off the whole shebang, We The People, long out of print and now a collectors item. Both are probably best understood as political control games with a warfare element in which players vie to spread their influence across the map, using generals to force their way through choke points where the population doesn’t agree with them. That’s partly what makes it suitable for new players. Another thing is the incredible 90 minute play time which is virtually unheard of for any kind of meaningful wargame. And in those ninety minutes you have the pleasure of endless strategic puzzles as the game state slips around wildly before you, and you worry about whether or not now is the right time to launch that offensive, or play that powerful event, or whether you wait and see if it’ll be your opponent trying to dictate the play in any given round. The game is much less prone to scripting and pre-tried patterns of play than most other CDGs and also benefits from being massively asymmetrical, with the ponderous but tremendously powerful professional British armies trying to pin down and destroy the weak but nimble American patriots. That asymmetry requires some rules weight, and the rule book isn’t the best, but if you spend the time with this one not only will you have gained the knowledge of how to play one of the best wargames ever made, but it’ll put you in good stead for most of the other titles in this genre, many of which are outstanding. If you want a bit more on this one, I reviewed it over at the Fortress last year.

Last but not least is a pair of relatively obscure games covering especially obscure bits of already obscure wars, Friedrich and Maria. I feel compelled to talk about them both not only because they’re closely related mechanically and from the same designer but because Fredrich, the only one I’ve played, is now out of print and hard to find so I offer Maria which I admittedly know a whole lot less about, as a possible replacement. One of the interesting things about both these games is that unlike a lot of wargames that accommodate multiple players almost as an afterthought, in these two it’s the crux around which the game is built. In Friedrich this takes the form of a 3-4 player game in which one player takes Austria and the others are placed in the interesting position of needing to collaborate to defeat him whilst struggling for an individual win, setting up some deliciously treacherous dynamics. Maria on the other hand is three player only but comes with a highly acclaimed diplomatic system to govern diplomacy. The other particularly interesting thing about these games is their combat system which revolves around ordinary decks of playing cards, with local terrain determining what suite needs to be used for the battle resulting in a fascinating interplay between on-board maneuver and hand management.

This is already a long article, likely to be of interest to a limited number of readers so I’ll avoid a lengthy conclusion. Suffice to say that the board gamers amongst you owe it to yourselves to try at least one of these games. And if none of the suggestions appeal in terms of subject matter, well, do feel free to ask for more.