Cauldrons of War: Stalingrad

I’ve been putting off this review for a long time. The fact of the matter is that this reviewer gets no pleasure from writing poor reviews. All the more so when it’s a game I really should have liked. A bit like Operation Blue itself, somewhere along the operation Cauldrons of War: Stalingrad loses its way.

I remember playing the original Cauldrons of War “concept”. It was barely even a tech demo. You set the stance of your various fronts, clicked next turn and somehow it turned into one of the most convincing portrayals of the Eastern Front I’d played. 

Fast forward, past Cauldrons of War: Barbarossa, and we are presented with Cauldrons of War: Stalingrad. It really should be a match made in heaven. The Red Army is no longer the Stumbling Colossus of 1941 and cracks are beginning to show in the Wehrmacht. Over 1942 perhaps one of the greatest military dramas of all time will play out across the Eastern Front. Glimmers of that drama shine through in Stalingrad’s portrayal of the fighting, that they remain only glimmers.

For the uninitiated, Cauldrons of War: Stalingrad portrays the Eastern Front at the strategic level with a scope equivalent to Gary Grigsby’s: War in the East. The player commands all frontline forces and directs the operations of Army Groups, smaller operational groups and fronts. Eschewing hex grids, Cauldrons of War focusses upon the big picture, creating an Eastern Front made up of various regions that change as the frontlines ebb and flow. Units are assigned to those regions answering to the higher command in charge of that area. Each HQ, whether it be an Army Group or front, has a limited amount of command points that it uses to direct the units below it. This limitation means that players must be very careful in choosing what units will do what.

These fundamentals are a strong base for Cauldrons of War. The limited command points lead to some very careful thinking on the player’s part. Furthermore, it also keeps the game moving. Too often information overload make these games very difficult to learn. The limited ability of the player to give orders in Cauldrons however means that the game moves quickly and focusses the decision-making to a few crucial orders rather than busywork.

So far, so good, unfortunately Cauldrons of War’s lightning advance through the fundamentals begins to falter as it heads deeper into the actual gameplay. For a start, the game’s writing does it no favours. It might seem like a small thing, but in such an abstract game writing is a critical part of how one becomes immersed in the unfolding story. The quite crude English only serves to remind you that you’re playing a game, rather than the gaming equivalent of a serious but approachable history book. It’s altogether a shame.

Then there’s the gameplay itself. The tutorial is adequate – at best – and if you miss or forget something the in-game wiki is quite unfit for purpose. Time and again I would try to find out what a “Grand Offensive” or a “Breakthrough” was. To me it seemed like another kind of attack.  All I seemed to do however was take away a command point for no gain. Eventually, I worked out it represents the overarching plan that your units will follow. It makes sense; but mixed up with all the other options – many of which also were along the lines of “attack” – it simply became annoying.

Fighting the interface is something of a theme with Cauldrons. Its issues run deeper than just game knowledge. With how limited command points are and how your units are assigned to different regions, making your decisions straightforward and transparent is vital. Cauldrons fails here, with the regions your units are assigned to difficult to identify through the interface. Your only option is to continuously click between the map and the HQ you are giving orders to make sure your units are going where they supposed to. For the Germans, who have less HQs than the Soviets, this is a particular problem, with Army Group South having up to a dozen regions under its direction. I want to fight the fascists/commies, not the interface.

The final weakness of Cauldrons however is one of perspective. When playing Fall Blau from either side, whose role am I playing? Am I equivalent to the Stavka or the OKW or one of the dictators themselves? Time and again I found myself asking these questions as one of the many pre-scripted decisions and events appeared at the beginning of a turn. It made little sense, with next to no resources available to the Stalingrad Front to commence its attack, for Zhukov should turn up with a wagonload of command points and a single extra army to begin operations. It’s true that many, often futile, attacks were launched on the flanks of the 6th Army’s push toward Stalingrad during the period – but it strikes me that that should be the player’s decision to cock up, rather than a scripted event. The way HQ command points are handled are equally irritating. I, as commander of all forces on the Eastern Front, able to launch night attacks on a whim, have no ability to influence what resources a HQ has available to it. Likewise, not all HQ actions are created equal. Stalingrad Front, whose fellow fronts are ordering entire armies to make massive assaults outside Moscow, will instead use all its resources for the week ferrying two divisions across the Volga. It would not be unreasonable for the Volga flotilla to use up all the week’s resources pushing two divisions across the Volga – but an entire front?

Cauldrons of War: Stalingrad is a fine achievement and, in many areas, plausibly and skilfully abstracts the enormous complexity of the Eastern Front. It is clear that the developer has done his homework and I especially enjoyed reading his explanations for many of the design decisions within the game. Many aspects work well and it was a nail-biting pleasure to see my panzers reach the Caspian Sea, even as their flanks collapsed around them. Unfortunately, abstraction is a double-edged sword. Time and again I felt I wasn’t fighting the enemy so much as the game. It is a problem Cauldrons of War: Stalingrad does not recover from.

-Charles Ellis

At the Height of Battle: Building and Painting

Putting together and painting everything in the “At the Height of Battle” set took a little longer than we had expected, but my wife and I had a great time giving life to these excellent figures. We can’t wait to get them on the table for a little skirmish, but I wanted to walk through our building and painting process.

Building these guys took a little extra effort. For the most part, the white metal casting was done well, with only a few ships having a noticeable difference in definition on the port versus the starboard side. For the most part, the detail was there and distinct, and where it wasn’t a line or a cannon could be fudged with the correct application of paint.

Korean Panokseon and their masts. Also some tools of the trade.

Some of the ships required a little drilling to make room for the masts. This also led to a temporary tragedy when my drill bit went through the side of the hole on the OAtakebune’s second mast. A little ‘greenstuff’ was all it took to right the issue, and with the primer applied it was almost invisible.

Drilling out space for the masts on the Atakebune.
Stupid Stubby Fingers! You can see the damage on the forward mast. I accidentally carved away the whole side of it.Well, it wasn’t the end of the world as some Greenstuff saved the day.
With the repair in place and smoothed out, the primer covered all sins.

For basing, we followed the directions of the rulebook and mounted everyone on 40mm x 30mm card taken from comic book baggies. Not sure why we had them, we don’t read comics, but there they were, so there they went. To stiffen everything up before we tried painting the bases, we coated them in liquid craft glue. In the end it looks a little funny with the giant OAtakebune and the tiny Sekibune sharing the same base, but I like the uniformity.

My wife, with much steadier hands, cutting out the bases from card.
Every ship assigned its base. It’s coming together.

We hand primed the miniatures with a brush and black primer. This was the first time we noticed that the primer occasionally slid away from parts of the miniatures, like there was some kind of repellent on the metal. Perhaps we should have washed the minis before painting, but in the end we managed to cover everything adequately. The primer stayed put so I guess it was a non-issue, but it had me worried for a moment!

Starting to get paint on them! You can be sloppy in the first few stages.
Korean ships sorted. At this stage we simply painted the banners and dry brushed some colour onto the water.
Japanese ships with their base colours in place. Much fine detail brushing was to come.

We wanted to be a little stylish with the different sides, giving the Korean and Japanese ships different base hull colours to help create uniformity among the sides. We kept the deck colour the same for both though. No idea of they’re historically accurate wood colours. Tabletop visibility and actually getting them done trumped that, unfortunately. One thing that I loved when looking at pictures in the rulebook and online was that there seems to have been a lot of decoration on Korean ships. Perhaps if I pick up some more I’ll do some experimenting.

In all their glory!

At the end of the day, Sacha and I had painted and based every ship. They were a blast to paint, but I especially enjoyed the Panokseon. They had some nice lines that really pulled the ship together visually from a distance. Now, on to gaming!

-Joe Fonseca

You can find the starter set here. LTAW gets nothing if you click on the link, and I purchased this set myself.

What Can We Learn From Combat Mission: Black Sea?

(Editor’s note: The following is a guest column by friend of the podcast, Savage, the man behind the War Takes twitter.)

Any casual student of military wargaming will know that the use of commercial wargames – whether off-the-shelf or specially modified – by militaries across the globe is nothing new. The United States and its allies use a variety of computer games with varying focuses and levels of detail for the purposes of training, professional military education, or even experimentation. Even then, not many games make the cut to be utilized by the military, and those that do usually end up being modified in some shape or form to meet the military’s specific requirements.

However, if there was ever a game that seemed to be ready for the military’s purposes right out of the box, with little or no tweaking required, it would be Combat Mission: Black Sea by Battlefront.com. The most modern entry – in terms of setting – in the Combat Mission series, CMBS revolves around an escalation in the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict that leads to full-scale open war and the intervention of the United States – a scenario that is timely given the recent escalation in tensions between Russia and Ukraine that lead to a war scare.

I’ve played my fair share of wargames over the years – though I’m still a dilletante compared to many experts I know, and I certainly can’t say I’m any good at all of them. CMBS is one of those games that feels like it was made for the military first and then released to the public, not the other way around. I admittedly have never served a day in uniform, my role in national security being purely as a civilian. But CMBS certainly feels hard enough to be the real thing based on how badly I botched my first mission after completing the game’s basic training mode.

But the difficulty isn’t what makes CMBS realistic. Realistic isn’t even the right term to use. No computer wargame is ever going to be able to 100% realistically simulate the conditions of combat – nothing can match that. But what CMBS does do is simulate the conditions of combat in a way that feels believable to the player. It gets across the key elements of modern combined-arms warfare at the low-tactical level that is still very useful for training leaders or even for experimenting to contribute towards developing new approaches, methods, and capabilities.

What makes CMBS believable? I could write you a book rather than an article on that topic alone, but I can offer you a list of some highlights. For one, it demonstrates how fragile humans can be in high-intensity combat. So many video games – even some of the more serious wargames – tend to allow your soldiers to soak up a fair amount of punishment before their effectiveness suffers – let alone they die. In CMBS, it doesn’t take a lot for your soldiers to get stressed and lose cohesion or retreat. Aside from mental limits, your soldiers are just flesh and therefore are “squishier” than in many games. If you try to charge an infantry squad across open ground to attach a prepared defensive position, chances are they’ll not make it very far before they’re cut to ribbons – especially if the enemy has heavy weapons or vehicles their disposal.

That’s another factor that demonstrates CMBS usefulness is the way it treats heavier duty weapons. It treats them as the key to infantry combat that they are. Most of the time, it won’t be an infantryman’s personal weapon that will be dealing the most damage to the enemy; it’ll be heavy weapons like machine guns, automatic grenade launchers, missile launchers, and vehicle-based weapons like autocannons and tank canons. While many games certainly represent this as well, they still often tend to tone back the sheer destructive power of the heavy weapons in the name of balance and fairness. CMBS does no such thing, letting them reach their full destructive potential in how they can reduce things – both living and inanimate – to ruins in short order.

This is not to say that infantry is useless in CMBS, however. Far from it. And this is another way in which CMBS shows its utility as a military tool, in that it shows how important it is to use infantry in conjunction with heavy vehicles and weapons – despite being “squishy.” I found this out the hard way in the middle of a mission when I got too cocky after destroying a Russian tank platoon and pushed my own tank platoon out a little too far. What I got for my daring maneuver was the loss of one of my tanks to a guided anti-tank missile launched from a nearby house – something I would have been able to spot and either destroy or suppress if I had thought to move up one of my infantry squads through the houses parallel to my tanks as they advanced. Heavy weapons may be effective, but they are not invincible nor are they all seeing. CMBS drives home the importance of true combined arms warfare, making use of infantry, armor, and off-map artillery and air support to destroy your enemy. Favor one too much and neglect all the others and you’ll likely not have much success or you’ll buy it at great cost to your own forces.

The focus on combined arms warfare between peer or near-peer powers is another reason why CMBS is believable as a military tool. In an era where conventional wars between great powers are once again a possibility the United States and its allies find themselves having to prepare for, CMBS’ scenario revolving around a conventional war with Russia to help defend Ukraine is apt. The United States military now has an entire generation of officers who have spent their entire careers fighting counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and other locales. Now these same leaders have to learn to fight a completely different war to the one they’ve been fighting, with the military as a whole having to regear back to what its original focus was before 9/11 and the War on Terrorism. With its main setting being a war against a well-trained, well-equipped, near-peer adversary, CMBS definitely has a potential use in helping to teach both new leaders and veteran ones to appreciate the difficulties and consequences of fighting against another modern army as opposed to a lightly armed and equipped irregular force.

Combat Mission Shock Force 2, sister game to Black Sea, sees American forces fight irregular units in a hypothetical war in Syria.

Now, is CMBS perfect? Absolutely not. I know I keep asking myself why I can’t run it on its highest graphical settings without it chugging despite the fact that I have a 1080 GTX graphics card and 16 gigs of RAM, but that’s a different gripe. No wargame is perfect, whether it be CMBS, or one of the other games utilized by the U.S. military and allied forces – such as Virtual Battle Space or Command: Professional Edition (the government and military-only versions of ArmA and Command: Modern Operations respectively). This is just as well though, as wargames can’t solve all the military’s problems anyway – something that any wargaming expert will be quick to tell you and anyone who can listen. What wargames are meant to do more than anything else get their participants thinking about problems that they face in modern combat and how to deal with them, rather than give them clear and actionable paths to success.

If that is the goal, then CMBS clearly could be useful in that regard. It’s no surprise to me that the United Kingdom’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) began using one of the Combat Mission games – along with several other popular commercial wargames – for research and experimentation. CMBS certainly has the right elements to make it a useful tool in a larger toolbox of games and software to approach pressing questions about the nature of warfighting going into the future. Whether is experimenting, or training or even retraining leaders on the nature of high-intensity combat, CMBS definitely is robust enough to be considered an aid for dealing with the thorny questions of conflict in the modern day and near future.

For more of Savage’s thoughts, be sure to follow him on his main twitter here.

Combat Mission Fight Club: How Digital Wargaming is Going Pro

Fight Club! Those two words generally evoke images of men fighting in basements, edgy tautologies about society, and the reminder to not talk about Fight Club. However, to us in the Wargaming world, there is a different Fight Club, this one uses games as a training tool, specifically for British Army small-to-mid unit tactics.

Joe and I were fortunate to be invited to a virtual Fight Club briefing a few weeks ago, where the Fight Club team pitched the concept of using games (specifically Combat Mission: Shock Force 2) to other British Army professionals. There were a couple other gaming journalists present, as well as some Slitherine devs, but overall the presentation was geared more towards military folks, not us gaming types. Regardless, it was a rewarding experience in that we got a peek into how CMSF2 could be used as a training tool for a modern, professional army.

Combat Mission: Black Sea, the sister game to Shock Force 2.

PART ONE: WHY COMBAT MISSION SHOCK FORCE 2?

Combat Mission, for the uninitiated, is a realistic turn-based or real-time wargame, where players command units from squad (or in Brit-speak, “section”)-sized elements to a medium-sized regiment. Every soldier on the field is modeled in terms of their gear, line of sight, and morale, and bullet paths are modeled as well, making the game a great choice for modeling real conflicts, or as we see here, training for real conflicts.

Fight Club primarily uses a special, “Professional” edition of Combat Mission, this has miscellaneous extra bits and bobs to it that make it more fitting to the needs of a professional service. And fitting it is! While a unit will need to cover the costs of hardware to run the game (Combat Mission runs on potatoes plugged into a wall, so expensive hardware isn’t necessary), Fight Club offers units that sign up for the program a few free licenses for the game. This makes running a training of CMSF2 much more cost efficient than live exercises, which could involve, among other things, Real Ammo™, Real Guns™, Real Food™, etc. These costs can add up, and units do have a budget.

All of this to say that CMSF2 is pretty affordable, but it’s also extremely modular. The base game comes with plenty of realistic scenarios already and a robust custom scenario creator, but Fight Club provides member units with mods to better match the real participating units’ OOB, complete with mods to slap correct unit insignia on troops and vehicles for, as the organizers put it, “unit pride.” The map variety is also good in base CMSF2, but Fight Club has a special tool that lets them scan in actual maps they have for use in-game. Neat! Don’t suppose us gamers can ask for a Google Earth mapping tool, can we?

American troops prepare to assault a village in Shock Force 2.

PART TWO: HOW TO LEARN WARFIGHTING FROM VIDEO GAMES

Those mods of maps and units act as a training supplement along with the other forms of training exercises for the British Army, live exercises (with or without live-fire), as well as classroom sessions. According to Fight Club, one effective use of the Combat Mission license is to take a map of a training area, place it in the game, and run games with BLUFOR and REDFOR in Combat Mission prior to the live exercise, to highlight potential outcomes and scenarios that could arise in real training/combat.

As Combat Mission has various scales of mission sizes, Fight Club recommends junior leaders taking charge of near-equivalent sized elements to their real commands to get a feel for how they’d react to the situation in combat. Ideally, these leaders would filter order through game “Controllers”, who would be a staff member that’s familiar with the systems of the game and knows how to get units from A to B on the map. The game can be projected onto a screen for multiple troops to view and make suggestions on as the game runs.

There are a couple schools of thought in Fight Club on whether the game should be run in turn-based mode, where both controllers give commands and units execute orders in 60 second intervals, to give participants time to think and discuss possible tactics to take, or in real-time, to simulate the decision-making stress of combat. Both have their merits, and what makes the most sense for a training varies from unit-to-unit and training-to-training.

And though Combat Mission is a game and can act as somewhat of an icebreaker/ “fun” activity, it is treated as a full, serious part of the training cycle. Gamedays are precluded with briefings of the scenarios the units will be playing, complete with recce of the maps, like an actual, real life mission would require. After the conclusion of the match, there are also substantial debriefings that go through what went well, and what didn’t go well in the mission (they also noted that pointing out a player’s missteps by identifying them specifically is a bad idea, which is something any of us co-op gamers know too well). This allows the unit to learn from their digital experience in the same manner they might through training.

An IFV lays down cover fire in Shock Force 2.

COMBAT MISSION: THE FIGHTING MAN’S THINKING GAME

Fight Club impressed us with how they’ve integrated Combat Mission into their training routine, and the organizers were all very gung ho about how it had helped their units’ readiness; this definitely isn’t just a scam to let a bunch of folks play games on the clock. The team talked about future implementations of the game and future mods, with a nod toward a “Russia and Ukraine focus,” the talk occurring at the time of the Russian mobilizations a few weeks ago, the team on the ball for countering future potential opponents.

Joe and I both left remarking about how interesting it is to see something we play for fun used in an applicable manner, especially a digital game, which are so frequently dismissed as the realm of utter nerds… which, to be fair, we are. But, it’s clear that digital wargaming is taking its place next to tabletop wargaming as a valuable teaching tool not just for armchair generals, but for professional militaries as well. Consider us to be watching Fight Club with keen interest in the future, to see what other games- er, training materials, they have up their sleeves.

-Jack Trumbull

At The Height of Battle: Unboxing

A while ago I tried Long Face Game’s Russo-Japanese War naval miniature rules White Bear Red Sun (A campaign setting for Broadside and Salvo) and had a good time soloing some scenarios using paper miniatures. You can check out my report of the Battle of Chemulpo Bay. When I heard that they were teaming up with MT Miniatures to do a quick play game covering the Imjin Wars, the Japanese invasions of Korea in the 1590s, I was immediately sold. There is so little coverage of this important conflict, and to be able to game it out on the table with 1/1200 miniature ships was just too tempting. I immediately preordered a copy and, lo and behold, it just arrived!

The Box was a little munched during its journey from the UK to the chilly shores of Canada, but I’m happy to report that there was no damage to the contents. Opening the box reveals each of the different ships types included in the core box. For the Japanese, there are O-Atakabune, Atakabune, and Sekibune. For the Koreans, we get Geobuksen (the famed turtle ships) and Panokseon. There are seven ships a side, so an equal distribution, but it will take a closer reading of the rules and some historical accounts to see what kind of engagements I can knock together with this set alone. So far I love the look of the minis and I can’t wait to paint them up. The rulebook recommends using card bases so I’ll be cutting up so comic book board to mount everyone up.

Looking at the rest of the package, there are a lot of included game aids in laminated sheets that need to be cut out. I have no problem doing that, and I’m glad to see everything important is included. At first glance I’m wondering if I’m going to need some opaque backed card sleeves for the activation cards, as you can kind of see through their backs. As far as I can gather they need to be drawn to determine activation, so covering their backs will be important. The rest are great and include movement and fire aids, wind direction aids, and my absolute favourite, laminated sheets to record ship information. I like a clean table generally so marking things down is perfect for me, though there are included markers as well.

The rules are well written so far, (I only noticed one minor typo!) and the game looks to be the kind of light-mid game that I enjoy. I’m very happy to see that a good bit of history has been included too, not just in describing the ships but in going over the Japanese Invasions of Korea in general.

Overall I’m super impressed with this as a quick start package. My wife and I are going to be sitting down to paint up the minis and cut out all the tokens tomorrow evening, so check back for a little painting guide, a review, and an AAR of our first couple games over the weekend!

-Joe Fonseca

No review copy was provided, this game was purchased(immediately!) at my own discretion. Here is the link to MT games if you want to purchase the set yourself. Let’s Talk About Wargames gets nothing if you click here, so click away!

PDXCON: Coming Soon

We’re getting to that time of year: GameCon season. We just saw Slitherine’s Home of Wargamers event just a few days ago, and now Paradox is hosting an event for their big games, which is very exciting. Paradox is known more for strategy, both grand and skim flavors, than wargames, though we feel that they are adjacent to our hobby here.

There are panels that start on Friday (May 21st) and go on for the whole weekend, dealing with their flagship games, mostly seeming to be CK3, HOI4, and Stellaris, as well as their less grand strategy games, such as Empire of Sin, Cities: Skylines, and Surviving the Aftermath. Notably, there seems to be a lack of content for Imperator and EU4, though more panels for those games could be announced. We’ll definitely be reporting on any big news from the event, but if you’d like to check it out for yourself, you can sign up here.

Tank Designer, my beloved.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the HOI4 panels, since we can get a good look at the new features rolling out in the currently unnamed expansion. Also of note is the NOCB podcast doing a liveshow on Friday, which is very exciting for them, and I’m eager to hear our game journalist comrades’ thoughts on the event. We’ll be chatting about the event in our Discord, which you can join here. Looking forward to talking with everyone about the event!

-Jack Trumbull

Unity of Command II – Barbarossa Review

Ah, Unity of Command 2, my old friend. I’ve written about Unity of Command 2 before, as well about Unity of Command 2’s first DLC, Blitzkrieg, and I was very pleased for the chance to play more of this excellent WW2 turn-based wargame. Bottom line up front: if you didn’t like Unity of Command 2, there’s nothing new here that would change your mind (unless you’re a really big Wehraboo, gross). If you did like Unity of Command 2, you should definitely check out Barbarossa, as it’s a better realized German experience than Blitzkrieg, while still delivering a similar style of action to what fans are used to.

Barbarossa’s premise is familiar to any WW2 gamer at this point: the Germans launched the largest land invasion in history into the USSR, using surprise blitzkrieg tactics to punch holes through Soviet forces with the goal of reaching and seizing Moscow (as well as other key points) before winter came around. Barbarossa follows the historical path here, with the goal in the most of scenarios you face being to push hard against the defenses of the Red Army and seize key logistical points, generally by exploiting weaknesses in their lines and shoving mechanized units through the gaps.

Unity of Command’s logistical system is the star of the game, and that continues to be the case in Barbarossa, even moreso than in the base game, I’d argue. So many of the cities and other objectives you need to capture are very, very far from your forces at the start of the scenario. Your forces need to maintain a supply network in order to remain fighting capable through their stampede across Eastern Europe, and to do so, need to seize rail lines across the maps. I really can’t emphasize enough how important this is, keeping the railways open, because the terrain is not conducive to supplying units far from the railways, and you don’t have time to waste. Many of the maps are designed that it can be extremely difficult to get infantry units to the end objectives by the time limit, even without fortified enemies to slow them down. You’ll depend on your armored units smashing paths clear, and your infantry running behind them to keep things clear and finish off encircled opponents.

This gameplay loop is very satisfying, and the maps are designed in such a way to encourage envelopments of enemy forces, with many natural chokepoints enabling a sneaky general to cut off the enemy’s supply easily… but you can also get cut off easily yourself. Like I said, maintaining the supply lines is vital, so you’ll frequently find yourself playing maneuver games with enemy forces on rail lines, both of you trying to keep it open for your side. Managing to overcome an enemy armored division to complete the encirclement of an enemy army is one of digital wargaming’s best feelings in recent years, and that is Unity of Command 2 distilled.

On the campaign layer, Barbarossa plays largely similarly to the Blitzkrieg campaign, albeit with much more army groups than I remember in Blitzkrieg. You’ll end up juggling points between seven different Army HQs, all of which need investment to achieve peak efficiency. The HQs are slow, and should be prioritized to increase range for your units, given the size of the maps and the speed of your armored columns. There’s another big wrinkle in the addition of the new “Blitzkrieg Command” card, which refreshes the command points for an HQ on a turn. Handy if you’ve invested in your HQs, but it’s easy to overlook them and to have largely ineffectual HQs.

This can be a bother after the initial scenarios, and particularly on any ahistorical scenarios; these tend to be more difficult than the historical scenarios, and it’s somewhat easy to achieve bonus objectives that unlock the harder scenarios in the early missions. However, going down these routes, you will then end up facing some really tough situations, in my opinion. The ahistorical routes, as in the other campaign, provide stiff challenges to the player. I recommend sticking to the historical route on your first play of any Unity of Command 2 campaign, Barbarossa included.

I don’t actually have any negative things to say about Barbarossa, any reservations I have about the game are limitations from Unity of Command 2’s engine. My chief complaint is that units are still unable to travel via rail, which would be realistic and provide infantry units a way to catch up to the quickly advancing armor columns. This small gripe, however, is the only thing that bothers me about Unity of Command 2. The game and its DLCs (Barbarossa included) continue to be some of the best and most accessible games for the wargaming crowd of late. If you like turn-based strategic games, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

-Jack Trumbull

Valor & Victory Preview

Valor & Victory is currently my favourite tactical squad level board wargame. It scratches the Advanced Squad Leader itch with a massively simplified ruleset that I feel promotes quicker, more enjoyable games. Originally a print and play game that I tried making for a wargamer.com article years ago, Valor & Victory has stuck around, earning its keep over other similar titles like Conflict of Heroes and Band of Brothers. (Both good games, but never quite caught on with my wife and gaming group as well as V&V did.)

V&V definitely doesn’t cover as much of World War Two in detail as it’s 600 paged core rulebook sporting older brother ASL, but the open source nature of it means that an energetic community has put out some impressive content that meshes well with the base game, creating new maps, scenarios, and army units. In fact, a modern expansion was recently released for Print and Play on Boardgamegeek. So going into this preview it is safe to say that I’m a fan of the core game. Will that make me go easy on Yobowargames and Slitherine’s digital offering, or will it make me approach with the critical eye of the hardcore fan of the original? Well, first one, then the other.

Yes! V&V is Getting a Digital Release! But How Does it Play?

I have been waiting a long time for this. V&V feels like an excellent platform to create a digital game system from, especially one that takes into account the active scenario creating community that helps make Valor & Victory what it is today.

On a turn, play is conducted in phases repeated for both sides. The Command phase allows for rallies (automatically done in the digital version), for the breakdown or recombination of squads, and the transference of equipment. The Fire phase allows all active side units to fire. Movement allows units who did not fire to move, giving the enemy a chance to opportunity fire. The Defensive Fire phase allows the enemies who did not opportunity fire a chance to shoot, then an Action/Assault phase allows every active unit to move a single hex regardless of what they did that turn. This single step can include an assault, a deadly affair that is important in taking ground.

Combat works by totaling the firepower of a unit and rolling a pair of dice. the result is modified by leadership and terrain, and a total number of casualties is popped out. The defender works out how to allocate these casaulty points by pinning, reducing, and/or eliminating units. Close assaults are a little more deadly with unpinned squads causing a minimum of casualties on both sides.

The mechanics of V&V will be familiar to anyone who has spent any time with tactical board wargames, or in the digital space with Lock n Load Tactical Digital. LnL Tactical is V&V’s primary competitor on the digital market, and it is important (however much I might not appreciate it) to keep what LnL Tactical offers in mind.

The Preview Build

The preview build I had access to contained three missions plus a tutorial. The tutorial was more of a simple mission with pop ups that explained what each phase entailed. The math, for the most part, is laid out clearly during the game so there is little worry about, but it would be nice to see some extra bits of information like movement values printed on infantry units somewhere (They aren’t in the physical game, but there’s no reason not to include that information in the digital).

When firing, the unit’s firepower and the cross section chart pops up for ease of reference. Here’s the thing though. They need to include some way to modify the speed of dice resolution. V&V is simple, and the math is simple, and I appreciate that immensely on the tabletop. But it does mean that the dramatic pause given after each roll before the chime goes off and it declares ‘miss’ is way too long. All the numbers are there, making it near instantaneous for me to look, see what was rolled, and know whether its a hit or a miss.

The included missions gave some solid examples of the kind of games that V&V can do well. Games can be small scale actions or larger battles, with one scenario even including vehicles and a couple including guns. Both types play well but the larger games allow for a lot more tactical consideration and more interesting avenues of attack and defense. The only major downside at this point is the AI. It clearly needs work. I understand that the developers have said that it was currently their priority, and I’m glad that it is. The AI left a key objective unprotected after I overran a unit in one of my preview games, and it seems to focus fire on easy kills to the detriment of strong defensive plays. I know coding AI is difficult, but it could really use a tune up before release.

The visuals and sound design is fine at the moment. I like the music and gunfire sounds and the visuals of bullets flying and little birds floating by overhead are a nice touch of animation over what is essentially a boardgame made digital. Counters are clear and easy to read, and the LOS tool and phase menu option are big, tool tipped, and expressly easy to manage.

There is an included scenario editor, and what looks like a packaged way to upload scenarios for others to try. I believe this will be the lifeblood of V&V digital’s adaptation just as it is for the boardgame itself. A lively community creating interesting scenarios with the units and mapboards in place would go a long way to giving players the authentic V&V experience and extending the lifespan of the game.

V&V is Getting There, But It Needs Work

Maybe it’s because I love V&V so much that I’m not entirely happy with the digital preview that I got my hands on. I feel like the core is there, but that some key elements need addressing, mainly AI and the option to speed up or slow down dice roll resolution. I would also be happy to see some level of control implemented in terms of casualty removal. In the board game choosing when to pin or to remove units is often (but not always if the numbers are wrong) a tactical decision in itself. Here it is handled automatically. I would like to options in the finished game.

A note on a funny bug. Bugs are an issue with any early preview and I was warned that there would be some in this build. In one game a German officer advanced onto a space occupied by two US rifle squads and an officer and rather than trigger combat, he just sort of became one with the unit. This had the unfortunate side effect of passing over control of those Americans into the hands of officer Schmidt. Now he was firing with the full might of two rifle squads and taking hits on them as I counter attacked. The extraordinary powers of suggestion that Schmidt brought to the battlefield ended my attack and cost me the game. I didn’t expect to have to deal with traitor units in that scenario (nor, do I suspect, did the developers!)

Worthy of a Valorous Victory?

I believe it will be very soon. The core is solid and the quality of life improvements that I want to see don’t seem to be entirely out fo the question at this point. When compared with Lock n Load tactical, I feel like there is a disparity in content and in the complexity of the underlying game system. There is a lot more on offer for different periods in LnL. But I like the V&V system more. But because LnL is more complicated, it benefits more from a digital adaptation. V&V is a simple, tight system that contains very little that I find frustrating to manage myself during gameplay. That leads to the funny situation that I am actually a little more annoying playing the digital version with a purposefully slow die resolution system when the math is easy enough to do in my head right away. It will be a moot point with the inclusion of a system to moderate how long the game lingers on die resolution, but for now it’s a funny quibble that I have with the preview.

As it stands, I like what I’m seeing overall with V&V, and I think with some more work it will be a solid contender on the digital boardgame market. The scenario editing tools alone make it worth looking at. I think, with enough interest, there could be an unlimited number of good scenarios. (or perhaps just adaptations of every good ASL scenario?)

-Joe Fonseca

Thank you to Slitherine/Matrix for access to the preview. Check out the game’s page here. LTAW gets nothing if you preorder this game or any other game.

Another Total Warhammer 3 Trailer Dropped and It Looks Really Cool

Creative Assembly have graced us with a new trailer for Total War: Warhammer 3, what looks to likely be the opening cinematic for the game. In it, we get an angry Kislevite (Russia-proxy) talking about the forces of Chaos, and lo! Chaos appears. We also get the very exciting cries of BLOOD FOR THE BLOOD GOD! SKULLS FOR THE SKULL THRONE! and who doesn’t love that?

CA will be dropping us a gameplay trailer soon, but you can check out the cinematic below. Total War: Warhammer 3 is expected for late 2021, and you can check out their Steam page here.

-Jack Trumbull

Warhammer 40k Battlesector: The First Six Missions

The embargo is lifted and I am free to report on my time spent with the latest press build of Warhammer 40k Battlesector! While the core mechanics remain mostly as they were in the previous preview, we now have access to the overarching campaign, or at least a few missions of it, allowing me to ramble on about how I think the game will hold up on release. Oh, and there’s also a sexy photo mode which has been used to embellish this article. No, no, I’m not a trained photographer, thank you, thank you.

Story Time on Baal Secundus

Having access to the first six missions in chronological order finally allows me to dig into the burgeoning narrative of Battlesector. Don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers here. The story revolves around the integration of the new breed of Primaris Space Marines into the ranks of the Blood Angels. The Blood Angels and their homeworld of Baal have just been devastated by the terrifying Leviathan Tyranid Swarm, during a battle that was so fierce it opened portals to Chaos and unleashed demons across the planet. Only a last second intervention by everyone’s favourite goodytwoshoes Roboute Guilliman and Primaris Marines saved the day.

Now some of these new marines have been assigned to 8th company and the cleanup of Baal Secundus. That’s where you come in. It’s up to you to test their skills as they’re led by grumpy old regular marines. The narrative fits into that comfortable warhammer 40k game narrative niche that doesn’t really do anything crazy, but also doesn’t have to as long as it gives us gruff space marines talking about the grimness of war and how unpleasant the xenos are. We certainly get that in the narrative. There is some room for interesting things to develop with the threads that have been left to us in the preview, so I hope things play out in an interesting fashion, but I’m not super keeping my hopes up for anything groundbreaking.

The Campaign Layer

This is the most tabletop part of Battlesector. Between missions you are free to add or subtract units from your army from a stable of Space Marine favourites like Aggressors, Intercessors, and Land Speeders. Each of these cost points and each mission has a point limit, so you won’t be able to take everyone with you each time. Each squad has the option to change out their weapons, but I didn’t really get to experience that in the preview.

Completing objectives and bonus objectives grant you tokens that can be spent on tech trees for each of the Commander characters in your army. These tech options range from passive abilities like increased heath, to active abilities like the option of calling in air support. I personally like the added depth of the campaign layer and actively tried to preserve my squads, especially those who had served with me for more than a couple missions. It’s a light campaign layer, but I like it.

The Game So Far

I still like how Battlesector plays. There is a lot of tactical consideration to be had on every turn. It may seem like the tyranids are a push over, but any real mistake will see your space marines splattered. I like the emphasis on ideal ranges for weapon types and the management of abilities to maximize damage.

The objectives have been pretty varied so far with the exception of the final irksome objective in each map: Kill all remaining tyranids. I wish that weren’t such a constant. They do a good enough job of getting in close so you can kill them, but in general it promotes a very methodical style of play where each encountered unit is dealt with in turn. Some variety here could go a long way in mixing up how missions feel. At least there is no turn time limit.

Aside from that quibble, I’m enjoying myself and I’m sure at this stage that I’ll enjoy the full game. I’m honestly just waiting to see where they take the mission structure and if the gameplay will develop well as more units and challenges are introduced. There is definitely a lot to pull from for inspiration, and what they have here is solid to say the least.

Oh, and there’s a sexy Photo mode. Refer to cool pictures again.

-Joe