Skip to main content

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.


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.

Download This Demo: Unity of Command

One of the best strategy/wargames of the year, or maybe the past few years, is now available in demo form on both PC and Mac. Unity of Command is a wonderful piece of game design and you really need to give it a whirl.

Remember, even the esteemed Jon Shafer thinks so too.

Don’t be intimidated by that screenshot, this is a streamlined design that is a step up from Panzer General but not super detailed like a chit-based wargame. It’s excellent.

You can buy Unity of Command direct from Gamersgate for $29.99 and is worth every penny.

Jon Shafer on Unity of Command

YouTube video

Here’s a game that I own, played, enjoyed (a lot) but for reasons I can’t quite grasp never wrote a review for because — well like I said I have no excuse. I accept my shame.

But I really like Unity of Command. It’s easy to get into and is a logical step up from the Panzer General model. So consider that a truncated review. Buy it.

But I always find it interesting when a game designer writes a review of a game in his field and that’s what Jon did this week. So read on to get the goods on Unity of Command from the man who designed Civ V. And honestly where else are you going to get a Antoine de Saint-Exupéry reference?


Along with writing articles on design and other subjects of a more general nature, I’ll occasionally be examining in detail a few games which serve as examples of excellent game design. Unity of Command is first on the list.

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, it’s a hex-based WWII lite-wargame in the vein of Panzer General. Some of you have probably heard that I’m a big fan of that game. Well, strap yourself in, because I like Unity of Command a lot more.

So What’s the Big Deal?

What really separates Unity of Command from other games (especially wargames) is that it stays focused only on what makes the game as fun as it can be. Most projects of this ilk throw in a lot of extra mechanics and stuff, either with the goal of making the game more historically accurate, because doing so just felt right, or – worst of all – simply because the design was thrown together sloppily, with little or no thought put into what the game actually wanted to achieve.

Thankfully, Unity of Command did not fall into this trap. To start with, the design of the visuals and the interface is exceptionally clean. I mean, really now, does this look like a wargame to you?

(For those of you who haven’t seen many, the answer is no… this is what they usually look like.) The large bobble-head figures might look a bit cartoony, but this style ensures you never any problem recognizing what unit is what. In a game like Panzer General you kind of need to be an expert on German armor and able recognize the turret shapes and hull armor slope which identify a Panther versus a Panzer IV. Unity of Command also displays information about the units in a clean and simple manner, using icons to indicate damage, entrenchment, a unit’s movement status, the supply situation, etc. These sorts of tools help avoid the feeling that you’re fighting the game tooth-and-nail for every shred of information.

The gameplay is also noteworthy, particularly in its omission of superfluous elements. As the French polymath Antoine de Saint-Exupéry famously said:

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

It takes an extremely disciplined designer to stifle the temptation of piling on features and knobs, especially with subject matter as ripe to detail-bloat as WWII. The massive theatre of air warfare is represented only by individual air strikes that may be ordered a couple times per turn, and all this does is inflict a small amount of damage on a single enemy. While some might bemoan this as a massive simplification, the game loses nothing for omitting an elaborate aircraft system where where the player marches individual planes around from tile-to-tile, ensuring they don’t run out of fuel or get caught unawares by enemy fighters. The most important element of airpower – tactical support – is represented in a way no more complicated than it needs to be. Could a system with air defense, fighters, etc. be fun? Of course. All games are not made equal, and some can certainly be more complex than others. But reductive design is rare in strategy gaming, and Unity of Command serves as an excellent example of this approach working perfectly.

Let’s Talk Mechanics

One of the features which makes Unity of Command so unique is its supply system. More important than the absolute strength of units is whether or not they’re on the supply grid. If you manage to cut off a group of enemy units for a couple turns, even the biggest, baddest tanks will simply melt before your infantry. Instead of thinking about individual unit matchups, a player must be more concerned with the big picture – who is in control of what territory and how can one best exploit the situation?

The basics work like this. There are a few nodes on each map which generate supply, which is carried along rail lines when attached to a supply node. Every connected rail tile radiates supply in a range dictated by the type of supply node and the terrain being traversed. Capturing a supply depot or rail tile cuts off supply to all units formerly in that radius. Much of the gameplay revolves around finding ways to isolate enemy units from their supply sources, capturing them in order to fuel your advance, and protecting your supply net from enemy units.

The beauty of this supply system is that it forces you to constantly make difficult trade-offs… how do you weigh the relative importance of ensuring your army is properly supplied (the most important units, anyways), completing objectives and exploiting enemy weaknesses? It’s nearly always a tough call and you’ll be taking risks no matter which way you go.

This is a good point at which to discuss what seems to be one of the guiding design principles of Unity of Command: carefully budgeting your limited resources. I’ve already talked about air combat, and that type of philosophy oozes from every part of the game. Another couple-times-per-turn special ability is the supply drops, where you can instantly resupply any of your units, even when cut off. You’ll often find yourself with several important units cut off from supply, and deciding which 1 or 2 get the goods can be agonizing.

Even unit types are an exercise in design by limits: there are only a few unit classes, most notably a single type of armor. Each scenario you’ll have a handful of tanks which can easily roll over infantry, which always make up the vast majority of the enemy army. The question isn’t if your tanks can win, but where to use them to maximum effect. A couple tough fights can also wear them down, forcing you to choose between pushing forward and pausing for a moment to heal back up. Across the board, Unity of Command does a superb job forcing you to make tough decisions.

Room for Improvement

I’ve spoken at length about the good aspects of Unity of Command, but like every game there are a few knocks against it.

One aspect that I’ve seen given mixed reports is the mechanic where you must spend Prestige (essentially your score) to gain new units or reinforce existing ones. This is interesting mechanic for some, but frustrating for others. It reminds me a lot of the dilemma that I often find myself facing in RPGs where your character has a limited amount of mana to cast spells, potions to heal, etc. These items are obviously in the game to be used, but my natural inclination is to want to ‘preserve’ these resources for later, instead of spending them now. Much of the time ‘later’ never comes, and having just defeated the final boss I still find myself with a full inventory. It poses an interesting question: why are some resources like money so easy to spend, while others like single-use items so much harder to part with? I imagine it has something to do with the uniformity and homogeneity of money, whereas items like potions feel more ‘individual’ and evoke the feeling of “well, if you use this it’s gone forever and you might not get another one.” Then again, Prestige in Unity of Command is much more like money than items in an RPG. I’d be curious to hear further thoughts on this subject. Anyways, back to the topic of this article!

One of the few areas where I felt the interface was lacking in Unity of Command is the need to enable overlay modes in order to see certain information. For example, by default there is no way to see how much supply you have available on each tile. You can memorize the rules for how it spreads over the terrain, but this is a level of expertise that very few players will reach. My preference would have been for this information be clear even in the default game view, particularly given how important it is. A very basic solution could be a simple graphic which appears at the very edge of your supply range. You wouldn’t have all of the nitty-gritty details, but this would be enough to let you know when you were exiting the ‘safe zone’.

The biggest strike against Unity of Command is a fairly inflexible ceiling on the amount of replayability the game provides. All of the maps are fixed, and the number, type and location of every unit is the same every time you play.

Is it a puzzle game? This is a question frequently asked about Unity of Command. Honestly, it’s hard to say. There is often a very fuzzy line between puzzle games and strategy games. Part of what pushes Unity of Command in the strategy direction is that it’s excellent AI constantly keeps you on your toes. You might think you’re in really good shape, only to discover during the AI’s turn that you left one part of the front a little too weak, and an enemy unit managed to cut off supply to your entire army. Puzzles rarely ask players to adapt to situations that dramatic.

The Takeaway

Puzzle game or not, Unity of Command isn’t something you’ll be playing every day for the next two years. Then again, the number of games you can say that about is so miniscule that it’s hard to ding Unity of Command too much for it. What I will say is that the game is both extremely fun and highly instructive for designers, and a few minor drawbacks fail to dull Unity of Command’s luster in the slightest.

While playing I was constantly making comments to myself along the lines of “yes, this is another thing they did right!” Which… unfortunately… isn’t something that I do much anymore, simply because I can’t help but view games through a very critical lens since joining the development club almost a decade ago. It’s now nearly always the failures which stand out to me rather than the successes. Even so, Unity of Command found a way to charm me. It’s a breath of fresh air, not only in wargaming but strategy gaming in general. Other games have much to learn from it, and hopefully this article can play a small role in spreading the word.

If you haven’t already (what are you waiting for!), head over to the Unity of Command website and pick up this game. It’s only $30, and well worth it.