Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Trying an alternate strategy in WWII: Barbarossa to Berlin

I finally broke out my totally tricked-out copy of WW2: Barbarossa to Berlin: the deluxe map, new cards, plus – and this is the cool part – my new C3i-supplied extra bonus Wermacht infantry corps that was accidentally not included in the base game but which nobody ever needs anyway. I like Barbarossa to Berlin a lot – more than Paths of Glory, actually – but the amount of errata had gotten seriously out of hand, especially card errata. It was to the point that the game was more or less unplayable, which is probably why I hadn't actually played it in a long time.

I have to say, the new map (in either its Deluxe edition, or in the new second edition of the base game) is a huge improvement over the original, first-edition map. The river crossings are much clearer, and having the terrain symbols in circles outside the actual spaces (where they won't be covered by unit counters and you can actually see them) both enhance playability significantly, and there are a number of other more minor, but still useful, improvements.

Having not played Barbarossa to Berlin probably in a couple years, we were rusty. As we pulled out the counters to set up, we noticed the Swedes and Turks and commented about how these just seemed like wasted space on the countersheet. Who ever invades Sweden? Or Turkey? We mulled over scenarios. For Sweden, all we could come up with was going after the Ore. For Turkey ... nothing. We couldn't come up with a single plausible situation in which Turkey would be worth invading by either side.

Anyway, Matt kicked off the game with Von Paulus Pause, and pushed the offensive very hard in 1941 in Russia. He sacrificed all to ops, trying to surround Moscow. He even forwent playing PanzerArmee Afrika or making any effort at all in North Africa. This used to be a winning strategy (or so the internet says, anyway), but it seems like the new Yellow cards for the Allies (including the critical Industrial Evacuation) and the rules allowing the Allied player to fish for Soviet reinforcement cards make this a really tough row to hoe now. The Germans did well in terms of VPs, taking Leningrad and comfortably exceeding their Eastern Front objectives, but there were a lot of eliminated and depleted units, and Moscow was never seriously endangered. This made '42 a tough year, and one mostly of repairing the Wermacht.

In the meantime, I had cleared out North Africa. With only token Axis resistance, I realized I had no need to launch Torch. The American units were not needed in North Africa, and Vichy would ultimately switch side when Casablanca came out, even if the conference wouldn't really be in Casablanca. So I thought "sure, let's go for Sledgehammer instead. I've never done this, and Norway would be a lot more threatening than invading an already-liberated North Africa".

This theory is not quite as solid is it sounds. There is no supply source in Scandinavia, so you've got your Allied Beachhead locked down in perpetuity, which means you can only launch subsequent invasions that use separate British and Allied beachheads: that's Husky, Overlord, the always rather dicey Roundup, and that's it. The smaller but still threatening Shingle and Avalanche (given Italian weakness, and when combined with US Reinforcements) are ruled out, as is Anvil-Dragoon. This is a problem. A related issue is that all your serious battles are going to be fought from Limited Supply, making activating units up there incredibly expensive (you'll most likely need spend a 4 or 5 ops just to try to force the straights in Denmark).

Plus, you're pretty much forced to invade Sweden. There are two links from Scandinavia to Denmark, one through Norway (which is across a body of water that, for game purposes, is a river) and one through Sweden (which isn't). You're going to need that second approach. Which means invading Sweden.

(A small aside at this point on Sweden: I was operating under a misunderstanding about the Ore rules in Barbarossa to Berlin. The Swedes have an Ore space in this game. In every WWII game ever made with any detail, there is a rule about the now-famous Swedish Ore; usually, as long as the Germans can trace supply to Sweden, they get some production advantage. I was sure there was a similar rule here, but after scouring the rulebook, I believe there is not – the Ore space in Norway is the critical one. The Swedish Ore is just another space in another neutral country, and if the Germans want it, they need to invade. Which will happen about the same time that GMT decides to start including an index in their rulebooks so it doesn't take 20 minutes to figure these things out. So, invading Norway is enough to knock the Axis hand down to 6).

So anyway. I invaded Sweden. We got to use those two blue pieces. It wasn't that exciting. I had to destroy the Swedish units, which was annoying, and seemed unrealistic – I have a hard time seeing the Swedes taking up arms against the Allies in 1943, especially with several powerful armies hanging out next door in Norway.

At the end of the day, I think the deck is stacked against doing Sledgehammer instead of Torch. It's just too hard with so little supply, and it constrains your options too much by depriving you of the ability to reuse that Allied Beachhead and severely limiting your options in the Mediterranean. You just can't drain off enough German units, and it's too close to German replacement centers. Italy seems a much better way to go. Norway does knock the Germans down to 6 cards by depriving them of Ore, which is definitely something, but I just don't think it's enough given the risks to subsequent invasion possibilities. If you invade Norway, and then get Husky or Roundup or Overlord in a timely manner, maybe it's OK; but if an invasion of mainland Europe is delayed a turn or two because you couldn't do Shingle or Avalanche, I just don't know. I'd have to think really, really hard about doing it again. I think you would need not just to clear North Africa early, but also enter Total War as early as possible (Summer '42) in order to minimize your risk of not seeing a follow-up invasion in a timely manner. A Sledgehammer invasion will put you more at risk of a strange card distribution situation.

We haven't finished yet; we're to '44, but will need one more session to finish the game. After blunting the initial invasion of the Soviet Union, and clearing North Africa, I was feeling pretty good about my prospects; but I think the whole Scandinavian campaign has been too much of an expensive sideshow, and I fear I've lost ground. We'll see.

In the end, I really like this game. It's not perfect – I wish it had more latitude for different strategic approaches – but every game has to make trade-offs, and of this style of card driven games, I find Barbarossa to Berlin to be one of the most successful. The trade-offs between events and operations generally make sense, a (generally) good selection of events has been chosen, and the tactical game is rich but not too fiddly. I really like how the offensive power of armor drives events on the Eastern Front, with both players always having a strong incentive to attack, and it feels nicely historical. The complexity is quite manageable. The only real complaint is the game length, but it's not hard to record and re-set-up, so we usually play over a couple sessions.

I still don't have a plausible scenario in which Turkey would enter play though...

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