Review by Adam Starkweather
Appearing in Paper Wars #49
Kevin Zucker, one of the patriarchs of our hobby, has been quietly designing games that represent his perception of the Napoleonic military art for many years now. Since he released Napoleon at Bay in the late 70s, he has remained steadfast and true to his ideals, to his perceptions of what makes a good game, and, by refusing to compromise those ideals for the sake of his market, Kevin has carved out his little fiefdom with Operational Studies Group. OSG, while perhaps not the maverick company that it was in the late Seventies, quietly puts out games that are beautiful, fun, and, perhaps more than any other, mirror the personality of its founder. Just as a film director makes an indelible statement not just about a story but also about who he is with his films, so too does a game designer make a statement about not just a topic, but also about himself, with his designs. I have never met Kevin Zucker but I often have a mental picture of Kevin designing games. He sits, eyes closed, in a Lotus position, meditating - Grateful Dead playing in the background - hoping for some new vedette inspiration to come his way during this moment of serenity. In a flash, it happens. Yeah, change the hex size, man. Change the scale to 10 miles a hex. Like, cool, dude. One such moment must have happened to bring Kevin the idea of changing scales in his Napoleon at Bay series and creating the foundation for Highway to the Kremlin.
Kevin's venerable Napoleon at Bay system, which has been around for over 20 years, has grown up. His latest, Highway to the Kremlin, jumps up the scale to 10 miles a hex (from the old 2 miles a hex); jumps the unit size to mostly corps (from mostly divisions), and the time scale to 5 days a turn (from the old 2 days per turn). This was done with a minimum of systemic changes (mostly regarding ZOC entry and effect), and allows all sorts of new situations to be simulated by this tried and true system. First up for the new toy is the 1812 Franco-Russian campaign. This historically important campaign has been badly neglected in our hobby. Only an old SPI design (mostly just famous for its area and hex versions) comes to mind when I try to think of games on this confrontation. When I think of the brutal effects of the Russian campaign for Napoleon, I see massive attritions, Fabian strategies by the Russians, and massive tracks of land. All of these factors are immanently well covered in the Napoleon at Bay system. Attrition, limited intelligence and nice big playing areas are, in fact, hallmarks of this system. Add to this a relatively famous and yet under-gamed situation, and you should have a real winner.
Now I would be remiss in not mentioning the graphic quality of the components of this game as soon as possible. Putting aside for the moment that they are astoundingly attractive for any wargame, Napoleonic games demand good aesthetics. When I think of the period, I think of grand costumes and pageantry. It is a cornerstone of the gestalt of the period. I think the visual appeal of the period is an important reason why a fair number of players are attracted to gaming this historical period. Clash of Arms' understanding of the importance of the aesthetic appeal of the period is one of the main reasons for the success of the La Bataille system You expect to get beauty when playing Napoleonic period games. Highway to the Kremlin also understands this and delivers - in spades.
The two maps in the game are two of the most attractive I have ever seen. Coming up with original superlatives for Joe Youst's work is becoming hard work but this map deserves it. In other words, pick a compliment you have yet to hear and insert here. Subtle pastel shades; clear; highly functional; a beauty at distance or close up; all perfectly matches with the bright, anti-aliased counters - all this is certainly true, but falls short in describing this map with any justice. You just have to see it to understand. As an aside, we gamers have fought over this patch of earth numerous times. I even suspect it is the most fought over land in all of wargaming. Part of the charm of the map is to see all these familiar cities and towns, and yet the feel is totally different; almost alien. There is no evocation of the terrible brutality and the impersonal industrialization of Barbarossa here. Although this campaign was also brutal by contemporary standards, they were still somewhat meek compared to 1941. This was a different, more chivalrous, time.
The remainder of the components are no less impressive - if a little less dramatic. The rules are full of information and well written. As has become standard in our hobby, the rules come in two flavors - basic system rules and exclusive rules for this particular battle. Unlike many games, however, the exclusives are the heart of the game here. While companies such as MMP (with their Gamers line in particular), tend to have series rules that have a few modifications, Kevin has really gone the other way. The exclusives, though shorter in length, are the essence of the game. Page count runs at 24 for the series rules, 32 for the exclusives - but that is deceptive. The exclusives are full of historical data and information, and really run about 16 pages of actual rules - but a fairly dense 16 pages. I missed several key rules the first time around. Several other first time players that I spoke to also missed the same rules. Read them carefully.
While the series rules have benefited from so much time in development, the exclusives are a bit on the rough side. Several ambiguities are present. This is not helped by Kevin's active participation in the system's evolution. Now to be very clear, I wouldn't have it any other way. Kevin listens to his players, is open to hearing about problems and fixing them, and, thus, making this a better game. Like Rick Barber with his opus, Summer Storm, it may make for a less stable rules set temporarily, but the game itself benefits tremendously from this willingness to listen in the long run. Rounding out the rulebook is a massive amount of data. From actual positions of the various units on actual game turns to extensive historical notes, the information presented here is absolutely first rate. Although as a novice regarding this campaign, giving me actual unit positions is a little dangerous. Units are frequently in places that they would never be in the game. The first thought is always, "what is missing from the system that would make this leader go to where he really went"? I suspect this problem would be the case in many games if we knew where units actually went on any given turn, but to give us the information is to risk that we will raise the specter of systematic failure. To round out the components, the 280 counters by Masahiro Yamazaki are bright and colorful (well chosen colors to mate with the map - something often neglected), and the box is in the standard OSG style. OSG is becoming one of the more impressive companies in their graphic presentation. Their consistency is startling and appreciated.
OK, so she looks good but how's the engine? I group Highway to the Kremlin into what I call "experience games". As opposed to "competitive games", this game type is to be enjoyed as a simulation of an historical event that is played out competitively rather than vice versa. In other words, you will not find this game at a WBC tournament, you will not be yelling "in your face!" when you get that lucky combat roll on Tobruk, rather you will be discussing the history as it unfolds, discussing the efficacy of rules as they apply to the historical events, and making spot (and mostly cooperative and not always self-serving) interpretations on rules. This game is to be enjoyed - not fought over (well, to a degree - it is a game in the end). As the majority of the "experience" type of gamers are solitaire players, I have always felt that the strong limited intelligence rules have hurt the sales of these games to their best audience. To be truthful, many of the game's revisions over the years have significantly helped the aloof gamers out there willing to give this system a shot, but many might still be turned off by its base system that relies so much on not seeing the other player's counters.
This review is somewhat difficult to write. I really don't know my audience. Similar to writing a review on Squad Leader or Third Reich (albeit to a far lesser degree), this game system has been around such a long time, and most of us gamers have been around such a long time, that if you don't know what a Napoleon at Bay game is, my assumption is that it probably is not for you. However, just in case you missed it over these many years, or just in case the many changes in the system now make this game more interesting for someone that only knew the 1st Napoleon at Bay, I will give a brief overview of what makes this game tick. If you like "experience games" like Great Battles of History, Civil War Brigade Series, or most of SPI's line, you are missing something by not looking into this series. If you like competitive games like Paths of Glory, Bomba system games, Third Reich (in all iterations), Operational Combat System or most of AH's line, than maybe your gaming dollar is best spent elsewhere. If you like both, like me, you may feel like I do, it is the best operational, pre-industrialization era game system out there. I even prefer the general system to its close cousin, Great Campaigns of the American Civil War.
The game system is easy to play. On the map are just force markers. These markers represent leaders, garrisons or vedettes (cavalry detachments, mostly). On a separate display are all the leaders and troops that are deployed with the leaders on the map. For example, the Napoleon leader is on the map and on his display are Murat, Eugene (two leaders - with their force on their tracks), and the Old Guard - maybe 75000 troops. All that the opponent sees on the map, however, is the underside of a force counter - just a national flag graphic. It could be Napoleon with 75000 men or a tiny vedette detachment. Units move either through the expenditure of, always too few, Administration Points (which guarantee movement ability and range), or by initiative (which is by die roll - if, and how far, are variables determined by chance). How far a unit goes will make the unit vulnerable to attrition. Move a lot (particularly with large forces) and you lose a lot, don't move and you may lose - but only a little. Combat occurs between all units in a ZOC. There has always been a mandatory combat adjacency rule in this system. To perform a combat, both players get an estimate of their opponent's force, and they each secretly pick a chit that determines their type of battle (important for how the combat is resolved - the loser of the fight determining the type of fight).
Victory in the game is measured on a Paris Morale table that ranges from -5 to +5. Get to -6/+6 and the game automatically ends, or, if at the end of the game, the table is at +1 or greater, the French win, 0 or less, the Russians win. All of this is pretty simple stuff in concept. In order to give potential players of the game a more substantial feel for what this game is about. I am going to focus in on a few specific rules and analyze how they interact with the system. Kevin Zucker's unique style and perspective can be more easily discerned by looking at the parts that make up the whole. First up, how does combat work?
Nowhere in the Napoleon at Bay system is Zucker's perspective on what is a game more evident than in his combat routine. All units that end the movement phase in an enemy ZOC must have combat. The basic routine runs like this:
• Both players state (rounded to the nearest five) how many strength points
they have in the combat.
• Both players now, in secret, pick a battle chit - either Pitched Battle or
• The attacker, then the defender, fires off his artillery.
• The actual strength of the two forces is compared and odds are computed.
• The attacker rolls the die, adds any modifiers (such as Napoleon being
present) and determines which side won the battle and the losses to both
sides. Depending on the type of battle, either pitched or pursuit, the sides
may convert the losses into strength points lost or hexes retreated.
• The loser of the battle shows his battle chit. If Pitched, the defender must
counterattack and the routine is repeated. If pursuit, the loser retreats and the
winner may follow. If the winner successfully follows (it is rolled for with
modifiers), the defender will have to pay for that retreat with actual strength
I have never been a big fan of this combat system. For reasons I will start
mentioning in a moment, I feel that, by and large, it is much ado about nothing, too deterministic, and fails to convey appropriate losses in Napoleonic combat. However, I rationalize its failings by looking at it in a more holistic manner. To Kevin, combat seems almost gauche. It appears that the designer's perspective that one should win Napoleonic operational warfare, not by feat of arms, but rather by guile and maneuver. If you reached the point of a massive combat being decisive, you have failed to play the system but rather let the system play you. I have accepted this over the years and greatly enjoy the system, but make no bones, it does demand that players take their Panzer blasting mentality and leave it at the door.
The selection of the battle chits (pitched or pursuit), which is vital to determining the resolution of a battle, is the key to the dissatisfaction I have with the system. First of all, the type of battle will give massively extreme end results. In a pursuit battle, the loser will run away and the attacker may, or may not, follow. Losses in these battles are usually low. In a pitched battle, because of the need to constantly counterattack, these battles will often end up in total (or near total) destruction for the loser. Rather than a Nineteenth Century style of combat, we see something more akin to the Armageddon in ancient battles. The difference is too extreme for this scale. There needs to be a battle choice in between these two extremes. In addition, because of the massive impact of a lost Pitched Battle, this battle choice is very rarely in play. Attackers that have high odds attacks (and remember that approximate strengths are known before the selection of a battle chit) would love it but are almost invariably the winners in battle. Remember, the loser determines the battle type. To always have the loser determine the type of battle always seemed to rub my intuition the wrong way. In this game system, the greater the preponderance of the attacker, the greater the chance that the defender will control the tempo of the battle (by losing and having his battle chit in put in play). This strikes me as counterintuitive to what the effect of having a great advantage in numbers is usually. The more force I have compared to you, the more I would think I determine what will happen.
If the odds are closer, and the winner of the battle more in question, both sides will almost invariably pick pursuit battle. The risks are just too high. This mechanic of secretly choosing a battle type seems to be much ado about nothing. Why give choice when the combat system makes the choice a foregone one? In my years of playing this system, I have had but two pitched battles. The very first battle I ever had in the system, in which I learned to never do it again because I was totally and completely destroyed, and the first battle after a few years layoff from the system in which I had forgotten the impact of the first battle. This mechanism of choosing just doesn't work for me. I always have pursuit battles.
Now, as a reviewer, I feel obligated to review the game as published, but there are changes in the wind to solve these problems. First of all, in the Highway to the Kremlin optional rules, there is a chart that players have to roll on to continue a pitched battle. If the players use this, some of the deterministic aspects of the battle routine are mitigated. In addition, Kevin is constantly evolving this system, and has introduced a new battle type in the game. Something called a "bye". This offers a choice that is in between the two other extremes. I played with both new ideas and the combat system is far better for its inclusion. I am still too new in using these two additions to say if they cause other problems, but they most effectively answer my objections. I just hope Kevin does not make the Bye choice too exclusively dependent on odd situations (specific terrain limitations for example).
When most gamers think of a Napoleon at Bay system game, almost invariably the attrition concept is brought up. "Oh, you mean that game with the Attrition Table?" is the familiar refrain. In this system, attrition is a paramount concern in how you play. Unlike games that at least use the attrition or straggler concept as a aspect of play (like MMP's CWB and RSS systems), and unlike games that (heathens!) disregard the concept altogether, attrition is the heart of this system. In 1812, even I know (and I knew little about this battle before I played Highway to the Kremlin) that attrition was the key to portraying this campaign effectively. Attrition loses in this system (and in this game in particular), will run far higher than battle losses. Attrition is very easy to use in this system. A unit, after determining that it can move, checks its communications. If within a certain range, it will not have to forage during its march (a good thing). After moving, the unit cross-references the distance it marched (and this number can certainly be 0 hexes) with the number of Strength Points in the force and rolls the die. Several modifiers will be applied to this roll and, upon determination, a number of Strength Points lost are removed from the player's unit display. Large forces, that are far from home, foraging in an underdeveloped countryside (as in all of Russia), can lose very large amounts of force. 15000 men coming down with dysentery in a single die roll is very common to forces that stay very large or move very far - or, even worse, do both. Reconciling the conflict between the famous American Civil War axiom of getting there "firstest and with the mostest" and ruthless attrition losses, is the key to successful Napoleon at Bay system play. And in Highway to the Kremlin, this difference is more exaggerated than in any other historical situation. Interestingly, my opponent in my Face-to-Face play of Highway to the Kremlin, felt that even these high attrition loses fell short of the historical levels. Kevin Zucker has always struggled with establishing victory conditions that make for good play (as opposed to good history). Always seeming to be capricious and vulnerable to too much "gameyness", one usually does not play Kevin's games to validate one's skill at wargaming. In one famous example, from Six Days of Glory, a player can win the game by retreating off map a just arriving reinforcement from the same hex it just entered. Perhaps this problem is from a dependence on playtesters that refuse to take the game off its historical tracks. Perhaps this is due to a reliance to keep to the "spirit of play". Whatever the reason, I entered play of Highway to Kremlin expecting to wrestle with problems in the victory conditions.
Victory in the game is determined by the state of the Paris Morale track. This track runs in value from -5 (doom and gloom in Paris) to +5 (a party every night of the week in Paris). If the total goes any higher, one way or the other, the game is immediately over. Players gain Morale points in three ways. Winning big in a battle, capturing an important general, or taking one of three important hexes on the board (Riga, Smolensk and/or Moscow). In addition, to cater to the differences in this campaign from others, there is a negotiations table that can end the game in a quick die roll when the French are parked in Moscow.
The first two ways of gaining Morale are due to extreme battle results, which as I just mentioned are usually indecisive (players always pick the Pursuit chit to avoid a massive loss). The more common way to win in Highway to the Kremlin is by taking important hexes on the map. Riga, Smolensk and Moscow are the keys to victory in this game. The French attempts to take these hexes will often drive the game along historical lines quite effectively. With the exception of some early French luck, the players will see the chimeral goal of defeating Russia elude them as they move farther and farther into the expense of Russia. Kevin does a much better job with his victory conditions here. As they should, they drive, rather than frustrate, the players. Unfortunately, early French luck can derail the game a bit from history.
For example, the French get a morale point for taking Riga, and Riga lies pretty close to the French lines at the beginning of the game. If the French take the town (and they will be able to do so without the long and extended lines of communications that attrite the French to more manageable levels vis-ˆ-vis the Russian Army), they will have to roll on a "Fire intensity table" (really a pillage able). This table makes the Morale points gained for taking a city variable. A six sided die is rolled and on a 1, the French gain 2 more Morale Points, on a 2 or 3, they gain one more point, and on a 4-6 they lose one (they get one for taking the place in the first place). If they make the roll, and don't lose their just fought for Morale point (50-50 shot), they have pretty much won the game. They can sit back and wait for the Russian to bang his head against the unreduced French lines. Not much fun for either side for the next 30 hours. It seems so capricious. Additionally, as a notoriously bad die roller, I hate to depend on one roll to win or lose. Now, to be honest, if the French fail the pillage roll, the game follows history very closely. And also, to be fair, Kevin is trying to deal with this problem. He is waffling back and forth on how easy to make taking Riga. It was hard in the original rules, errata made it much easier, and now errata to the errata has made it hard again. Although it is still no harder to take than the other victory cities, and it still lies tantalizingly closer to the French home bases, making it difficult to conquer has mostly mitigated the problem of one die roll to win such a long game. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I took Riga in my game, rolled, and got, the Morale Points. The game was mine. Did I stop and crow? No, of course not. Only wimps would stop here with all of Russia in front of them. These quibbles aside, the real test of a game that falls into the play for the experience group is evaluating the experience. Does it play out according to history and, just as importantly, does it "feel" like one expects? In my gaming of Highway to the Kremlin, I had the great joy to play against Alan Campbell. Alan is to Napoleonics as Dave Powell is to the American Civil War. As we are playing, little historical tidbits are thrown out that greatly enhance the historicity of the game. Date by date knowledge of who was where (helped by a very appreciated and handy chart included in the game for just such a purpose), and little stories about this leader or that one, made the experience of playing that much finer. As I am far from a Napoleonic expert, I leave to him to judge the Historical value of Highway to the Kremlin. Although he felt that the attrition levels were still too low in the game, and although he had some minor disagreements on the leader ratings, by and large, he had enormous admiration for Kevin as a designer. To take a basically un-gamable situation and make it into a fun and playable game is a remarkable achievement.
So now the bottom line, do I recommend the game? Sure; wholeheartedly, especially to those players that want to learn about this campaign. This game is the epitome of the Paper Time Machine. This is a game full of historical information, a game system that seems born to be in Russia in 1812, and has beautiful graphics to make the sweet tasting pill even tastier. Any aspiring student of the period could do far worse than to start here. And, even for more competitively minded gamers like me, the game was fun, and drew me like a magnet. I kept coming back to see what the next few turns would bring. Playing time for the campaign runs at about an hour a turn - so figure about 30 hours to finish the game. Several battle scenarios are available for the time (and/or space) challenged players. The solo quotient on the game is not nearly as bad as one would think. In fact, most players I know are playing the game alone. Get the game and spread the word.