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 News December, 2020

Designer’s Blog: December, 2020

November January

24 December, 2020

Huh. It’s been almost a month since the last blog update. Lots of playtesting and adjustments have been going on, some successful, some not. I thought I would do a big update on the state of the design since 30 October, the last time I really did a big review. (The interim updates were fairly narrow in their focus.)

As we often do, let’s start with the mapboard:

(Click on the image to open the site in its own window.)

The first change to be noted is a deletion:

The above were the Expenditures Play Aids. I became increasingly unhappy with them over time. I just felt that they were too visually complex and obscure. Will they be replaced with improved versions in the future? Maybe. But I have to say I’ve been happier with the map since their removal.

Next up: There have been changes to the decks, some cosmetic, some functional. Let’s start with the German decks, which are (left to right): “Müll” (Junk), “Krieg” (War), and “Produktion” (Production)

If you’ve been following along, this may actually be more confusing than if you haven’t. Formerly, each army had a Discard deck, which used the trashcan icon. The Müll (Junk) deck has the trashcan icon, but it isn’t functionally related to the old Discard deck at all. It is instead a replacement for card elimination, which the last-discussed version had but which the current version does not. More about that later.

The center deck, the “Krieg” (War) deck, is pretty much unchanged. The card icons along the top are for initial set-up, and the table at the bottom is the card suit and value distribution for the game.

And on the right, we have the “Produktion” (Production) deck, which actually is a replacement for the old Discard deck, with a new name and icon, but with little change in function. The play-aid information at the bottom are the starting production numbers for the different countries in the game. (Players reasonably complained about having to count the damn things to get these numbers, so I added the totals here.)

The Soviet decks are pretty much the same as before, except for the change of name and icon for the former Discard (now Production) decks:

One problem the Soviet decks have that the German decks do not (at least not to nearly the same degree) is label readability. German uses (largely) the same alphabet as English and is cognate-rich enough with English that German language labels are frequently readable, but Russian labels are much less so, making the dependence on iconography near total. The production numbers here are a problem: while СССР is intelligible, the other country name labels are much less so.

There are also some significant changes to the map proper. The route lengths in some parts of the board (particularly the western Ukraine) have been lengthened (with fewer positions) so that units can cover a greater distance in fewer steps of movement. For example, the distance from the nearest German set-up position to Dnjepropetrowsk on the lower Dniepr has been cut from 11 route steps to 8. This change makes a big difference in the rate of German advance. Before this change, the Germans really struggled to advance at the historical speeds, but these adjustments really help to bring the game more in line with history.

Once place where the changes are pretty visible is in the area north of Crimea, as you can see below:

V30 Route Sample V39 Route Sample

Speeding up the potential rate of German advance helps with another area of the game: it really puts a lot of pressure on the Soviets to attempt a more active defense in 1941, even though it means that the Soviet units thrown forward will be slaughtered. Something has to be done to slow the Germans down, or they’ll be in Moscow and Leningrad in the summer of 1941 and Stalingrad at the start of fall 1941.

Next up, let’s do a rules walk-through (or at least part of one).

Rule Text Commentary

Same as V30. With a subject as well-know as this one, really the less said the better. It isn’t like I’m doing a game on an obscure 18th century subject like the War of the Austrian Succession or something. For a subject like that, a longer introduction makes sense.

Same as V30, except for being updated for the current map.

One of the chronic irritants to the rules revision process is the need to keep illustrations up to date. Because it is irritating, I generally am fairly lazy and don’t necessarily actually do it for every rules revision, especially when the changes are visually minor and I don’t think it will confuse anyone.

But for you, dear reader of this blog, I am giving you a rules version with an updated map. Because I care. Or am obsessive. Or something.

No substantial changes from V30, though there are a couple wording tweaks.

One problem with the game rules is the distinction between the board and the map. I don’t really use the word “board” in the rules, apart from one usage in the introduction. Generally speaking, I speak of whether things are on-map or off-map. If off-map (like cadres) where off-map they are is significant: cadres in the cadre box have different significance than cadres on the time track.

I have had a playtester question about whether by map I meant the entire board: if I did, then a cadre on the time track was a cadre on the map. This isn’t what I mean, but being asked the question at all has left me a little wary and uneasy. So, I have taken extra pains to clarify that pieces in cadre boxes or on the time track are considered off-map.

More minor wording changes. Perhaps the most significant was to give the Main Front-Line its own sub-section title. The actual rules text in the paragraph is pretty much the same, but before it was labelled Ends and “End” is a word I use in too many different contexts with too many different meanings for it to make a good sub-section title.

Divider guides. (Formerly “printed divider lines”.) What. An. Embarrassment. There was a serious logical problem in the way I was handling them that I never noticed. I had printed divider lines running between routes, and told players to put the divider pieces where the printed divider lines crossed the front line, but the front line could parallel the printed divider lines in odd ways and I never noticed, leading to ambiguous situations where it wasn’t clear where the pieces should be placed, and big dummy that I am, I didn’t see it. For months.

If the section 4 text on divider guides seems a little hand-wavy, it is. Section 25 is where they are really explained. I thought about not mentioning them at all here, but I wasn’t comfortable with burying such a highly visible map feature like that go unmentioned until a late rules section.

Same as V30. At one time, I had an entire section devoted to pockets, mainly because I had the concept of a second kind of pocket: the out-of-supply pocket. One of the more important revelations I had during the design process was realizing that I didn’t need to formally define out-of-supply pockets. All I needed was to identify out-of-supply positions, and I didn’t need a special section for that: the supply rules already had that covered.

This is pretty much the same as V30, with just some wording tweaks.

These paragraphs are basically the definition rules for breakthrough paths: What are they? How are they created? What are their parts?

Months and months ago (long before V30), breakthrough rules were defined in pretty much the way they were here. Then I decided that the only part of them that really mattered was the body positions, and defined the base and head out of existence.

Well, removing the head caused problems. People had a hard time understanding that the breakthrough path of a unit did not include the unit’s own position. So I restored the definition of the head, and things got better.

But, as it turned out, people were also confused that the breakthrough path did not include where the unit was before it crossed into enemy territory. Just not as confused as they were about the head And what’s more, I decided that I did need special rules for the base and restored it as well.

And so, I spent months working to get back to where I started. Good job, me!

And these paragraphs are also pretty much the same as in V30.

These paragraphs are pretty much about the breakthrough path lifetime: how are they maintained and how are they destroyed. (Well, most of how they are destroyed; there are explicit instructions about their removal as part of the process of ending a turn and cleaning up for the next turn that this section doesn’t cover.)

Without a doubt the thing about breakthrough paths that people find the most potentially confusing is that each unit has its own distinct breakthrough path, even if their paths overlapped. If a player doesn’t understand this, then they end up with some idea of shared breakthrough paths whose maintenance becomes very perplexing, because there are no rules covering shared breakthrough paths (because of course there is no such thing as a shared breakthrough path).

Anyway, making it clear that each unit has its own breakthrough path was one of the major motivations behind revisions to these paragraphs during the development process.

Text-wise, this section hasn’t changed much, but all the illustrations were revised when the new suit icons were introduced. The feedback I’ve gotten on the new designs has been pretty positive, which is gratifying. Artistically, I liked the old designs just fine, but as suit icons they weren’t great, and they didn’t match the visual style of the rest of the game. So, out with the old and in with the new.

The first paragraph hasn’t really changed, but we do indeed have changes to the deck list.

My biggest problem with this revision was a name collision. I decided I didn’t want to permanently eliminate cards from the game, that I could put what were formerly eliminated low-value cards to good use. But to keep them I needed a place to put them: hence, the Junk deck. However, the name Junk was entirely too close to Discard, (and so were all the synonyms I could think of) which was a problem.

Happily, the Discard deck always had a dual-life as part of the production system, and so there was an obvious alternative name for it: the Production deck. But that name needed a new icon. Happily, I was already using a factory icon that was closely associated with production, and so it became the production deck icon.

And with the old discard deck icon no longer needed by that deck, it became available for use by the Junk deck. And so, as it was a pretty good icon for it, it was put to that use.

There is one final question that I kind of slur on: there is only one Junk deck in the game, so I don’t need to distinguish between a German and Soviet version of the same deck, yet the deck is much more fully used by the Germans than the Soviets. And so, I never call the junk deck a German deck, but I do use the German color for its icon wherever it is used.

The first four card operations (draw, add, transfer, and shuffle) are all very much what they were in V30.

Discard, however, very much is not. Formerly, it was just the process of adding a card or cards to the Discard deck. Eliminating cards was an entirely separate card operation. Now, what were two separate operations are one operation with two separate destinations, and the operation involves choosing between them.

Because the Production deck is very, very like the Discard deck, differing very little in substance, there isn’t much new I have to say about it.

The Junk deck, however, differs in many ways from the elimination operation it replaces, most obviously being that cards in the Junk deck are not eliminated: they can be returned to play.

In this context, the main differences I want to point out is that the rules for adding a card to the Junk deck are much less restrictive than elimination was: there is no requirement that you have the initiative, the per-turn limit is 3 cards instead of 1, and each player has his own limit independent of the other player.

But before leaving this section, I want to talk about the elephant that isn’t in the room: the War Draw operation that used to take up a large part of this section no longer exists as a thing. At one time, there were a lot of contexts in which a player might make a War Draw, legitimizing it as an operation requiring its own rule. However, over time, the number of context dwindled, and the other day it struck me that there was now just one (War Move momentum), and it no longer made sense to treat it as a card operation per se, and that it instead made more sense to just explain it in the War Move rules.

The main changes to set-up have been changes to the magic numbers as to how many cards of what values go into what decks.

As far as modeling the Soviets in 1941 go, V30 and V39 are on opposite sides of the Great Divide. The Great Divide fell between V31 and V32. In V31 and older, the Soviets got a lot of low-value cards which they could use to create units or hold as cards for operational use however they saw fit. Starting in V32, the Soviets got a lot of units for free (modeling Soviet reserve mobilization) but were starved for cards for operations (modeling their low standard of equipment, organization, and training).

At set-up, the difference is in the number of cards in the initial Soviet War deck. In V30, the Soviets got 16 cards, but in V39, they only get 8.

The difference in cards continues in early turn production. In V30, the Soviets get a baseline of 20 cards in Summer 1941, and 16 cards in Fall 1941. In V39, the Soviets get a baseline of 10 cards in Summer 1941, and 11 cards in Fall 1941. What the Soviets do get in V39 is free units: they can raise 15 units at no cost in cards in 1941. But since they can’t convert those units into cards, the additional units do noting to address their card shortage.

While the card shortage does impair the Soviets, it also increases their vulnerability to German penetrations cutting Soviet front-line positions out of supply, which results in card penalties for the Soviets on the following turn. In the former versions, there wasn’t that much reason to cut the Soviets out of supply; the card penalty didn’t hurt them as badly because they had a lot of cards. But in the current version it does, creating a real dilemma for the Germans as to the merits of pressing forward vs. pocketing Soviet forces. So, I think the new method in multiple ways does a substantially better job of modeling the 1941 campaign than the old.

However, it is a big change, and a lot of playtesting has had to go into making sure that it works properly, but I do think the effort has been worth it.

The sequence of play really hasn’t changed at all between V30 and V39 — not at the top level, at any rate. A number of the lower-level procedures have changed, but probably a discussion of those changes should wait until we reach the sections that discuss those procedures.

The process of calculating production hasn’t change at all between V30 and V39. There have been some changes in production sources: Wien was a production city in V30, but is not in V39, and at Grozny there are now 2 oil resource sites instead of one.

Regarding Grosny, it was a major production site that the Soviets were extremely reluctant to destroy, increasing the German chances of capturing at least some of it in working condition. While Baku was even larger, it was further away from Germany, and for the Germans transporting oil would have become as big a bottleneck as producing it, so I think all things considered leaving it also with 2 sites probably makes sense.

In terms of game play, increasing the production at Grosny was supposed to also be an additional incentive for the Germans to attempt a campaign for the Caucasus, but I can’t say it’s had any measurable impact to date. No doubt in part this is due to the disruptive effects of the changes to the Soviet army in 1941 have had on getting to 1942 in reasonably historical condition. In some games, the Germans have already won, in others, they are too badly beaten to think of such thing. I am pretty confident that those issues will get straightened out and we’ll get a better look at how 1942 plays then.

So, this is the part of the production process where the abstract points calculated earlier translate into cards. If the calculation part of production was fairly stable between V30 and V39, this process was anything but: it changed in almost every rules revision. Let’s walk through it step by step.

Step 1 is where production get converted into cards. This is functionally unchanged from V30 and is quite straightforward.

Let’s move on to step 2 and 3 (we’ll take them together). In this step, cards are exchanged between the discard decks of the opposing armies. In V30, this was a symmetrical exchange: 3 cards were transferred each way> But as of V38, it became an asymmetrical exchange: 3 German cards for 2 Soviet cards. The primary effect of this change is that over time, the German deck size tends to slowly shrink while the the Soviet deck size tends to slowly grow. One secondary effect is that the tendency of the exchange to keep the deck sizes in equilibrium is reduced. With fewer cards moving, differences in quality between the Germans and Soviets become more persistent as entropy between their decks is reduced. Another secondary effect is to increase the likelihood that the Germans will be forced to draw on the Junk deck for cards, thereby setting in motion a decline in the German card quality.

In step 4, the Germans are permitted to transfer up to 6 cards from the Junk deck to bulk up their War deck at the cost of a reduction in German deck quality. This is not something the Germans are likely to do much early in the game, as the quality cost is too high, but later in the game, as card quantity becomes increasingly a problem, low cards can be better than no cards at all, which is a threat the Germans can face later in the game, when losses mount and production declines. A driving reason for this was to allow the game to better model the late war, where the Germans found themselves increasingly forced to send sub-standard units to the front, because it was either those units or nothing at all.

And of course in step 5 the Germans shuffle the war deck. Obviously there isn’t much to say about a deck shuffle per say, but one of the problems throughout the design process has been to keep the number of deck shuffles to a minimum as they slow down the game. The timing of what draws get made from what deck when is absolutely influenced by that problem.

There are no changes between V30 and V39 in the basic mechanisms of unit creation, conversion, and maintenance. The process is the same and the costs are all the same.

The only changes to these paragraphs have been minor wording changes for clarity.

Although there isn’t really anything new here, there are a couple points about this system that I would like to discuss.

The first of these is unit maintenance. The introduction of a war economy into game play without a maintenance system is highly prone to producing runaway growth by one or both armies, which is often dealt with by arbitrary size caps. (In fact, earlier versions of Stavka, where the maintenance rules were functioning poorly, had exactly that sort of problem and dealt with it in exactly that way.) But without maintenance, it is difficult to really capture the dynamic nature of the war economy and the strain a military places on that economy. And capturing that dynamism was one of the fundamental objects of the design of Stavka.

I would not say to have yet fully succeeded in what I’ve set out to do, but I do feel that I am getting closer. I think adding non-linear maintenance costs was a critical step. The game at this point doesn’t have hard limits on unit counts (which I think of artificial and bad, in both game and simulation terms): it simply becomes uneconomical to grow the army below a certain size; the costs of maintenance and operations become so high that there is simply not enough left to also make the army larger.

The second is that the costs are different for the opposing armies, reflecting the differences in the war economies of the Germans and Soviets. Germany had enough technically sophisticated manpower to keep the complex equipment of mobile units operating and of running the demanding kinds of operations that mobile warfare required. However, they lacked manpower overall. The Soviets had the opposite problem: manpower as such was much less of a constraint than technically sophisticated manpower, and it was this shortage, rather than equipment as such, that made it so difficult for the Soviets to compete with anything like equal numbers in mobile warfare against the Germans.

These structural differences in the war economies are reflected in costs: for the Soviets, infantry units are cheap, and the Soviets will tend to rely on them heavily throughout the game, even for offensive action towards the very end of the game. Their armor units will simply not be sufficient in number for them to ever wage the kind of war that the Germans waged in 1941. For the Soviets, they cost too much.

The Germans, on the other hand, will always find it easier to try to keep armor units in the field than the concentrations of infantry that infantry units in the game represent. German infantry int the east was almost always used in supporting and defensive roles than being the main force in offensives, as opposed to the Soviets who did it frequently. When it is hard to get enough infantry to even cover the front defensively, scraping up an offensive concentration of it is harder yet. So the Germans found it historically and so the Germans in the game will find it.

As mentioned previously, Soviet mobilization was introduced between V30 and V39. Earlier versions were a little on the rough side, but I think it is coming around to functioning as conceived.

The first version introduced a fixed number of mobilization units in the summer and fall turns, then none thereafter. In that version, they consumed but didn’t require cadres, which created a perverse result that cadre losses didn’t matter.

The second version required cadres for mobilization, but again had a fixed number of units, and odd things could happen if one turn had a deficit in cadres and another a surplus.

The current version expands the number of turns to include the winter, and rather than a fixed number of units per turn, a total is spread out over the turns according to the number of cadres available. This seems so far to have avoided the major failings of the prior versions. Whether 15 units is the right number of units is not yet entirely clear, but it seems broadly in line with the scale of the historical Soviet mobilization.

Effective control is a section that has been subject to a lot of small edits in pursuit of clarity between V30 and V39, with only one substantial change.

There is only one change that I really want to call out here, and that is that I realized that it had a long-standing ambiguity as to whether, when counting distances to a breakthrough path body position, whether the count should be from or to the breakthrough path. Because the game has routes that are slow in one direction but not the other, the two counts are not necessarily the same.

There is one other thing I want to say about this is that because of the point-to-point network, the disputed control rules are capable of producing odd and unexpected results on a small scale (positions in disputed control you might not expect) but its overall contribution to the game on a larger scale are remarkably positive.

There really haven’t been any substantial changes to the supply rules between V30 and V39, though there have been a fair number of small edits and ordering changes for the sake of clarity.

These paragraphs serve to define how to tell whether a unit or front-line position is in full supply, limited supply (excluding sea supply), or is out-of-supply.

In terms of complexity, they aren’t too bad, although understanding the relationship between disputed control and disputed supply is both critical to proper game play and the least intuitive thing about them. Still, I think on the whole players do pick it up pretty well once they’ve had a little practice.

There is, however, a little snare in here concerning supply across the Kerch Strait. From a simulation point of view, the Kerch Strait rule actually works quite well for a very low complexity cost, but it can be missed, perhaps because the mention of it is so brief.

The sea supply rules likewise haven’t really had any substantial changes between V30 and V39.

One thing about them, though, is there is no question that there are a lot of rules here for a capability that isn’t actually used often in the game; although when it is used, it can matter. A lot.

In spite of the mass of detail here, I’m actually fairly proud of these: they boil down an awful lot of odd special cases from the historical conflict into a pretty cohesive and comprehensible set of rules that, I think, do a good job of producing historically reasonable outcomes.

In V30 these paragraphs included a summary of the various consequences of the different supply states, but in V39 I replaced it with a set of references to the sections detailing those consequences.

I came to have some level of discomfort with summaries as a result of the reception to Bonaparte at Marengo, which included some. There were two problems: some readers didn’t remember the actual rules, they remembered the summaries, which were deficient in details, and other readers were confused and read the rules as being inconsistent.

V30 and earlier versions gave summaries another go anyway, but I have since thought better and instead decided to replace it with what you see here.

In V39 this section is expanded for clarity compared to V30, but in terms of content it is the same, with one exception: in V30, with regard to initiative, on a tie the army that had the initiative at the start of the phase keeps it, but in V39, on a tie the Soviets have the initiative. I think it is better for the game to put the onus on the Germans to attack in order to retain the initiative.

In some of the versions between V30 and V39, the initiative was more important than in either, but a number of the advantages of having the initiative have since been backed out for situational reasons. (For example, eliminating units used to require having the initiative, but adding units to the Junk deck has no initiative requirement. I made the change not because I wanted to de-value the initiative, but because I didn’t want to overly restrict adding units to the Junk deck.)

Because Stavka is a war game, most of the game play occurs in this phase, and, unsurprisingly, the rules governing the military phase are longer than those for the other phases, comprising about half the rule book.

The military phase rules are actually shorter than the corresponding sections in my previous games, but because player actions in Stavka are even more dynamic and more interleaved than in those games, I have seen that players can have difficulty grasping the order in which things are supposed to happen, which has been an area where I think the rules could really benefit if I could improve their clarity in this regard. V39 does take some steps to address this, which will be covered later.

So, there is actually a substantial difference here between V30 and V39. In V39, there is the requirement that a long-distance deployment move cannot both start and end in the enemy home country, a requirement that wasn’t in V30.

The motive for this change was that I thought it was far too easy for the Germans to strategically redeploy within the Soviet Union, especially in 1941. The Germans had chronic problems with the Soviet transportation network, in part (but not only) because of the different gauges used in Soviet vs. German rail networks.

While I had made up my mind to address the problem of excess German strategic mobility, I hadn’t made up my mind about how to do it. Should it be a Germans-only rule? Should it be a total ban? What about the minor powers of Romania, Hungary, et all? In the end, I decided to prevent moves within the enemy home country, but allow entering and leaving, which does leave open making a two-phase strategic move to get from one part of the enemy home country to another: out of the enemy home country in one phase, then back into the enemy home country in another phase. This, however, I decided was acceptable both in terms of history and game play.

There aren’t any substantial changes here between V30 and V39, but there have been edits for clarity, particularly with regard to the sequencing of the declaration and execution of blocking moves, which has been an ongoing source of difficulty in playtesting.

So, the sequence write-up in V30 was really minimalist, but in V39 steps 5 and 6 have been expanded to make it easier to understand the order in which things happen when a move is blocked, and how it differs from when a move is not blocked. This is, incidentally, brand new in V39; the last version released to playtesters is V38 – even they havent’t (yet) seen this.

V39 does have a substantial difference here from V30 in that V39 allows counter-attacks with a different suit assignment than that of the target unit (forbidden in V30), but at a -1 momentum penalty. The motive for this change was to protect players with a bad suit distribution for where they are being attacked from being quite so defensively helpless, which has been an occasional problem in playtesting.

So, remember way back when, in discussing section 7, and I said that the War Draw as a distinct operation was dead and that the content of the rules had been folded back into the Momentum Draw rules? Well, here they are.

This reorganization has two main advantages in clarity: First is simple co-location; players don’t have to jump to a different section on a different page to read the rules for momentum draws. The rules are right here in the flow of what they are already reading. Second is the removal of an abstraction layer.

So, what do I mean by an abstraction layer? An abstraction layer is a shift in terminology between contexts. The War Move rules have a “front assignment”, which was abstracted in the V30 War Draw rules into a “target front”. So, to use the War Draw rules in V30, the player had to know to map from the one term to the other, which was a learnability problem that isn’t really about learning to play the game, but was instead about learning to read the rules.

The most pernicious problem caused by the abstraction layer for War Draws was the default War Draw value of 1 on a failed War Draw. This did indeed mean that even without drawing a card, a unit could still have a momentum of 1, but it was a translation from War Draw to Momentum Draw in which players had low confidence, if they fully realized it at all. Hopefully, subsuming the War Draw rules into the Momentum Draw rules will resolve that problem.

Another clarifying change to the Momentum Draw rules concerned when the card face is shown. In particular, I wanted to ensure that players understood the timing of revealing the Momentum card vs. enemy blocking move decisions. This is another aspect of trying to improve the clarity of the rules regarding timing: what things happen in what order.

The rule in the third paragraph wasn’t there in V30, and looking back, I don’t know why it took me so long to add it. Its effect has been dramatic, and in a good way. Breakthroughs have become pretty paralyzing to enemy movement (which they always should have been), making the game both more historically accurate as well as more interesting to play. And the rule isn’t even complicated. So, a total win.

Remember back in the discussion of section 5, when I talked about the need to have Breakthrough path base positions as a formal term? Well, part of the reason is right here: preventing the enemy from entering breakthrough path base positions.

There was a nasty problem in rules prior to V30, which I thought I had adequately fixed, of single units making shallow breakthroughs aimed at the base of deep enemy breakthroughs, cutting them out of supply with devastating effect. This tactic had the unhappy combination of being both ahistoric and extremely effective, and it grossly distorted game play: to the extent that it could complete wreck games.

Anyway, in a playtest game between V30 and V39, it climbed out of its coffin, not nearly as dead as I had thought, and was used again, every bit as ugly as I remembered it.

Well, this change is another nail in that coffin. Together with a parallel change in section 25, that is one tactic I hope never to see again.

The rear area rate rules I don’t think have changed at all since V30. I worried a lot about these rules in the months prior to V30, because of the fractional-movement rate thing, but by the time of V30 the rules actually seemed clear enough that people were managing them ok, and these rules have not been a source of trouble.

There haven’t been any substantial changes here between V30 and V39, but there have been clarifying changes around three problems:

First, 0-distance moves. In V30, the rules made it clear that entering an enemy-occupied position started or continued a battle, but what if the unit was making a 0-distance move where it started in an enemy-occupied position? The rules were not as clear about that as they should have been and I have since made their handling explicit rather than leaving it as something for players to infer.

Second, front-line attacks vs. enemy unit attacks. With two different triggering conditions for attacks, the way I had the rules organized there were some rules where structurally it might look as though they applied only to the latter and not the former, which I have sought to address.

It wasn’t clear when attacks and counter-attacks were actually executed. A paragraph was added specifying that each unit executed its attack or counter-attack as part of executing its move.

No substantive change here since V30, but I have edited the wording repeatedly. I’m not sure, however, that I’ve made it in any way clearer; just different. In any case, it hasn’t been a trouble area, so I could be fussing over nothing. Or it just could be that people haven’t paid enough attention to it to really get confused...

There haven’t been substantive changes to this section since V30, but V39 saw a major re-organization of this section. Most significantly, two subsections have been introduced: Declaration and Execution, intended to map onto steps 5 and 6 of the war move procedure.

In terms of clarity, how to execute war moves when blocked has undoubtably been the biggest issue with the rules. There have been more questions about it, more confusion, and more unintentional rule breaking than almost all of the rest of the rules combined.

Some of it, to be sure, is due to repeated changes made to this process earlier in development, but even after the rules stabilized, confusion persisted.

The fundamental complexity is due to the fact that it requires the players to understand three large rules sections, those on War Moves, Blocking Moves, and Battles, all of them pretty thoroughly before it all hangs together. And that is just a lot of rules, and there is no prior game that basically has the same system, so everybody approaches it as a novice.

One thing I had pinned a lot of hope on was the detailed, half-page example sequence in section 18, but either players haven’t attempted to use it for that purpose or didn’t find it helpful. Either way, though, the example didn’t solve the problem players were having.

And this is where the re-organization comes in. My current hope is to make the joins between the three sections clearer, so that players could more readily understand how to execute the entire thing in the right order. I do think that once players absorb how to do it, it actually plays pretty smoothly, but absorbing it is a challenge.

In any case, this is where I am for now. V39 is brand-new, so nobody has yet seen it. Hopefully it will at least be the framework for making this part of the game more learnable. (It is of course far too much to ask that V39 work as-is. Major rules revisions pretty much always produce some issues, even when the net effect is good.)

These rules are unchanged since V30, but I don’t think I’ve ever really reviewed the battle rules before, so let’s take a clean sheet of paper approach in reviewing all of section 18, and go more slowly than we have before.

The three central concepts of the battle rules in Stavka are that battles take place in a single position, take place over time, and are fought in rounds, where each round is the result of a unit attack or counter-attack.

I’m very sure that the extended nature of battles is neither new nor unique with Stavka. I believe, in fact, (but having only read the rules and never played it) that Eastfront does something similar. How many other games might have used similar systems I don’t know, but I find it very hard to believe it could be zero.

Ultimately, battles are resolved by a numeric score, and each attack or counter-attack adds to or subtracts from that score. The attacking army wins on a score of 0 or greater, while the counter-attacking army wins on a score of less than 0. So far, so good, I think, the battle rules are, to this point, quite straightforward.

Nothing good, however, lasts forever, and the actual battle resolution procedure does have some wrinkles, even if nothing especially complex.

The first wrinkle is the introduction of something called resistance, briefly alluded to as part of the rules for attacking across the front line, but here fully developed. Resistance is nothing more or less than opposition to momentum: An attacker gets to increase the score by the unit’s momentum, but resistance to that momentum subtracts from the score. Similarly, a counter-attacker gets to decrease the score by the unit’s momentum, but resistance to that counter-attack subtracts from the score.

There are two kinds of resistance:

The previously alluded to front-line resistance, which subtracts 1 from the score. (There is actually no such thing as front-line resistance to a counter-attack as counter-attacks do not cross the front line, so all front-line resistance is, by definition, resistance to an attack.)

The other type of resistance, and much the more complex of the two, is infantry resistance. Each infantry unit can (potentially) resist once per battle, but not having moved that phase is a requirement for infantry resistance. So, infantry is stronger when it can defend in-place, and weaker when it is forced to move.

There are a couple of additional complications to infantry resistance.

The first is that it is must be applied when the infantry’s army is losing the battle, and can’t be applied otherwise. The reason for making this algorithmic approach was just to simplify play: allowing players to choose when and when not to resist was found to be something of a headache as each unit had to be tracked. When it is algorithmic, it is generally possible to know just from the state of the battle whether infantry resistance had been applied or not.

The second complication is that infantry resistance is normally worth only 1 point, but in capital cities it is worth 2 points. Originally there was a wider range of possible infantry resistance values for different types of positions, but it was found that there really only the capital cities needed special treatment for good simulation results.

This is, as its name suggests the set of rules governing the end of a round of battle.

The first case it deals with is when the round was a blocking move counter-attack, but after the counter-attack is executed, the attacker is winning the battle. There is provision that allows the blocking army to immediately make another blocking move. One thing that makes me a little uneasy is that the rule doesn’t explicitly say that the blocking move has to be another unit. Now, there is definitely a rule saying that a unit can’t make more than one War move in a phase, but I am concerned that I am leaning too hard on that rule here. In theory, I shouldn't have to say it here because I’ve said it elsewhere. But I have learned that people don’t always do a good job of apply rules that to a situation if they are in a physically distant part of the rule book, so I may do better to revise this.

The second case deals with when the counter-attacker is losing and there are no more blocking moves to be made. In that case, the battle is over and resolves as a loss for the counter-attacker. This is pretty straightforward, I think.

The third case deals with when the counter-attacker is winning. The counter-attacker can choose to resolve the battle as a loss anyway (armor sometimes benefits from blunting an attack, then retreating back so as to be able to do something else later in the turn). The more normal case, though, is deferred resolution. The attacker could bring another unit in, wait a phase and attack again, or just wait and resolve the battle as a loss at a more convenient time. The ability to defer battle resolution is a major feature of the game and typically happens multiple times a turn.

This is the battle example, on which many authorial hopes were placed and which haven’t ever really been realized.

As mentioned before, this was supposed to really help the reader put it all together and see how war moves and battles worked in an integrated manner. Judging by the questions I receive from playtesters, it just doesn’t do that.

But let’s walk through it anyway, and I’ll talk about what the example is supposed to do.

Step 1 demonstrates declaring an attack move.

Step 2 demonstrates the declaration of a block move.

Step 3 demonstrates the first part of the execution of a blocked move: moving first the blocked, then the blocking unit to the battle position.

Step 4 demonstrates the next part of the execution of a blocked move: an attack by the blocked unit. This also demonstrates how both attack momentum and front-line resistance to that attack work in executing a round of battle.

Step 5 demonstrates the last part of the execution of a blocked move: a counter-attack by the blocking unit. This demonstrates how counter-attack momentum works in executing a round of battle. Also demonstrated is that as the counter-attacking army is winning, there is no forced immediate resolution.

Step 6 demonstrates a delayed renewal of the attack later in the same round after some indefinite period of delay. It also demonstrates an infantry attack, and an attack that follows a prior breakthrough and thus doesn’t have to fight through front-line resistance to get there. (The enemy front-line is already defeated on that route.)

Step 7 demonstrates a battle carried over in the 2nd Military Phase, the ability of armor to make two war moves in the same turn (something that infantry cannot do), the ability to declare 0-distance moves, which commonly occurs in battles that carry over between rounds, and the ability to block a 0-distance moves.

Step 8 demonstrates another attack, this time at 0-distance and so with full momentum.

Step 9 demonstrates another counter-attack, and also demonstrates infantry resistance, which the German infantry is eligible to perform, having not moved this phase, as its move to the battle position was in the prior phase.

At this point, the battle example proper is complete, but this example is picked up again and continued in the rules for battle resolution.

The example contains demonstrations of all the major elements of battles and movement into battles and how they relate to each other. What it does lack, however, is any sort of intentional context: it shows the Germans doing this and the Soviets doing that, but it doesn’t explain why they would choose to do these things. It is possible that its failure as a teaching tool is connected to that, but I admit I am not sure.

As with the battle rules, I haven’t really presented these rules before, and so again will walk through them fairly slowly.

The bulleted paragraphs to the left serve to describe when a battle is to be resolved. Later paragraphs in this section take up the subject of how battles are resolved.

The first bulleted case is actually ones we just saw in the Battle end-of-round rules. If the counter-attacking army is losing at the end of a round, and isn’t eligible to, or chooses not to continue a battle with a blocking move, the battle is immediately resolved as a counter-attacker loss.

The second bulleted case is likewise one we just saw in the Battle end-of-round rules. If the counter-attacking army is winning at the end of a round, they can choose to resolve the battle immediately as a loss rather than continue it.

The third bulleted case covers how a deferred battle gets ultimately resolved: by means of a Battle Resolution Action, which was mentioned way back in section 14, but about which nothing much was said between then and now.

And finally, the fourth bulleted case refers back to break-off moves, which were discussed back in section 16.

To the left is the outline of the procedure for resolving battles. The ordering is simple: first do the losing units, then do the winning units.

For the loser, the per-unit result is situational. Worst-case is elimination, the fate of units that are out-of-supply. Next worse is reduction to cadres, which is what happens to in-supply infantry and in-supply armor that can’t execute a legal retreat. And best case, only for in-supply armor, is to simply retreat. The unit stays on the map and lives to fight another day.

For the winner, the last unit to arrive at the battle gets to advance. This is a concept that has proven problematic from a player learning point of view, as we will discuss later.

To the left is the outline of the procedure for resolving battles. The ordering is simple: first do the losing units, then do the winning units.

For the loser, the per-unit result is situational. Worst-case is elimination, the fate of units that are out-of-supply. Next worse is reduction to cadres, which is what happens to in-supply infantry and in-supply armor that can’t execute a legal retreat. And best case, only for in-supply armor, is to simply retreat. The unit stays on the map and lives to fight another day.

For the winner, the last unit to arrive at the battle gets to advance. This is a concept that has proven problematic from a player learning point of view, as we will discuss later.

Retreat rules are always a bit of a challenge because of their tendency to produce odd effects. This is especially true in area and point-to-point movement games where the geometry varies from one part of the map to another.

In earlier versions of the game, the retreat distance was tied to the battle score. This, however, could produce issues with unreasonably long retreat distances resulting. In later versions, the retreat distance was just locked at 2, with a +1 adjustment to 3 if necessary to get across a slow route.

The rule that retreats are not technically a move is an important one. It would be very bad if players attempted to apply the rules for moves to retreats.

Handling of retreats from breakthrough units is one of those things that seemed easy, but turned out to have a lot of issues to consider when the breakthrough unit was cut off from supply. In such a case, should it be able to retreat down the breakthrough path of a different friendly unit? One of the reasons this was particularly troubling was because early versions of the game had too many sneaky ways to cut breakthrough units out of supply. It was really by fixing that problem that the breakthrough unit retreat problem simplified to what you see here.

In friendly territory, there were a lot of possibilities I went through, but happily, once the retreat distance was set to 2, and I no longer had to consider very long retreats, there was less pressure to add complexity to improve the results. And so you see what we have here. It isn’t perfect, but it works well enough: it is reasonably simple and odd retreat results don’t significantly hurt game play.

The advance rules have been surprisingly vexing in terms of learnability. Surprising because there actually isn’t that much to them.

There have been two persistant areas of misunderstanding and uncertainty, both contradictory. One is the idea that an advance move has to follow an enemy retreat move. The other is the idea that if the unit was blocked and then advances, that it has to follow the previously declared movement route before it was blocked.

Both of these ideas are examples of imaginary rules, rules that the players think might/should be there, even if they never read them. What makes them particularly pernicious from a rules point of view is that there is nothing in the rules that is the basis of the misunderstanding: it is all in the head of the player. But that doesn’t mean that the rules can ignore it: rules have to deal with players as they are in all their messy human glory, not with some imaginary players from the designer's imagination. And so, the third paragraph is designed to head off at least one of them.

It is the above problems that the last paragraph to the left is intended to fix.

The battle resolution example is a continuation of the battle example from the previous section. By doing this, I wanted to show an example of an entire (and fairly complex) battle from start to finish.

Step 1 explains why the battle was resolved, and also shows the reduction of the German infantry. (The illustration of the reduction may be a bit much.)

Step 2 shows the German armor retreat and the explains the options for that retreat.

Step 3 is, I admit, not much of an example of an advance as it really just explains the options for the advance. It does, however, show the map appearance after the German units have all been handled, including the removal of the German breakthrough marker.

And here I’m calling it quits for this blog entry. It has been very long, long enough I hope to at least partly compensate for the delay in posting since the last entry, and I hope it has been interesting. Until later!