Sunday, January 5, 2014

Three Views of Fall Blau: Unity of Command - 2nd Kharkov

All of this playtesting Stalingrad scenarios for Command Ops has me interested in the entire campaign leading up to the massive battle itself.  Beyond reading Moscow to Stalingrad - Decision in the East I wanted to game the campaign to get an overall sense of events.  It seems I've been collecting games that allow me to do just that.  I have three different games that either have Case Blue as a scenario or are specifically focused on the German offensive of 1942.  Specifically, I have Unity of Command, Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue, and War in the East.

Each of these games is at a different scale and different level of abstraction.  Unity of Command is scaled at 20km per hex with four day turns; units are German divisions and Soviet Corps.  DC: Case Blue uses 10km hexes with two day turns, units are regiments and divisions.  War in the East has 10 mile hexes with weekly turns.  Units are divisions and corps.  Unity of Command is the most highly abstracted of the three, War in the East the most detailed and complex, and DC: Case Blue is also generally complex, though in ways different from WitE.

I then thought that it might be interesting, over the coming weeks and months, to play through the various scenarios and campaigns of these games covering the German offensive of 1942 and the Battle of Stalingrad/Operation Uranus itself and compare them.  All are great games with an eye toward historical accuracy.  I hope that playing through these campaigns will hone my skills with all three game engines the same way playing a lot of Command Ops has over the past few weeks.

While not part of the actual offensive itself, the prelude to Fall Blau is the Battle of 2nd Kharkov.  Let's start our series with this battle as depicted in Unity of Command's "Stalingrad Campaign."

Unity of Command is undoubtedly the most graphically elegant of all three games.  This is the entry screen to the Axis Stalingrad Campaign.  Campaign progress is show moving from scenario to scenario on this map. Note that this illustrates an initial, significance difference between UoC and the other two games - in UoC the campaign is a set of linked scenarios; in the DC:Case Blue and WitE its possible to play the entire offensive as a single game from the beginning to the conclusion at Stalingrad.

The scenario map, with some background. The three primary objectives for the German counterattack at Kharkov are the towns of Olhovatka, Kupyansk, and Izium.  The primary game play mechanic in this game is timed capture of the objectives.  To achieve a Brilliant Victory I'll have to capture Olkhovatka and Kupyansk by Turn 4, and Izium by Turn 5.  If I capture all three later than that, but prior to Turn 6, I'll score a Decisive Victory.  As long as I capture everything by Turn 9, I'll score a regular victory.

I find that this time-based mechanic, while creating a lot of tension in the game, also makes it feel very much like a game.  UoC tends to play a lot like chess.  You have to focus on making the right move with the right pieces at the right time, and often in the right order.  You can't combine units to attack an enemy unit at the same time.  You have to move a unit in, attack, and if the attack doesn't force the enemy back or destroy him, you need to move the attacker out of the way so that another unit can come up and make another attack, etc.  This creates a "dance" of attacking units along the route to an objective that doesn't feel terribly realistic to me.  Combine that with tight time lines and it's possible that a couple of ill-considered moves in one early turn can lose you the scenario.

There are also no points for destroyed units, on either side.  This makes UoC a game solely about geography and time; there's not much concern about force preservation.  There's also not much reason to strive for encirclements, other than to clear a path to objectives or weaken attacking enemies.  I always forget this when I first start playing this game and opt for strategies designed to destroy the enemy rather then capture ground.

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the German-Soviet War was the difficulty of logistics, particularly for the Germans.  All three games make logistics networks crucial to success. In UoC the AI is outright ruthless in exploiting gaps in your forces to cut supply lines.  Units that are out of supply for more than a turn are progressively useless, and eventually very easy to destroy.

By the beginning of Turn 2 I've managed to stop and nearly cut off the spearhead Soviet cavalry division racing for my supply point at Poltava, and my armored units have made headway toward the bridge across the Donets at Izium.  The Russians have captured Kharkov, however.  A better approach on my part would have been to move the two Panzer divisions just south of the city north to attack the northern bridge.  This might have given me a breakthrough I could exploit toward Olkhovatka and Kupyansk.  As is stands there is already no way for me to take those towns by Turn 4. Note the two Soviet partisan incursions on the south map edge, threatening my supply line.

The end of Turn 2 sees most of the Soviet forces west of Izium pocketed and my mechanised forces poised to take Izium. The Soviets still hold Kharkov but are nearly encircled there.

The supply situation looks good for me, not so good for Soviet forces west of the Donets.

Turn 3 saw some Soviet counterattacks that slowed me down. At the end of Turn 4 I've taken Izium and mostly cleared Kharkov. Doing so cost me a Panzer division, and the other more northern Panzer division has been tied up around the city rather than being used to take the northern objectives. There is no room for error in these scenarios!

I had hoped to take Kupyansk by the end of Turn 5, but came up a little short.  The Soviets are in real danger of being cut off now - not that there are many of them left.

I really, really should have sent armor north Turn 1...

 Kupyansk falls and I drive for Olkhovatka.

Turn 7 and Olkhovatka falls as well.  The Soviets have essentially been eliminated, anyway.  I score a plain vanilla victory. Despite the somewhat chess-like aspects of the game mechanics, I enjoy UoC.  The game has a suitably Eastern Front feel and is easy to play but a challenge to play well.  Most importantly, it does a decent job of illustrating the major battles of the campaign at a high level.

On to the beginning of Fall Blau and Voronezh!