Round 5 of the Iron Man sees me drawn against Mike Owens. Our game of Storm Over Stalingrad is the first time either of us have played.
Mike and I share some similar gaming history: lots of ASL; little of anything else for a long time; some exposure to the ancestors of Storm Over Stalingrad, including Storm Over Arnhem.
We are seven hours apart (he is GMT+3; I am GMT+10), so after a long first turn by email we decide to play the game live via VASSAL in one turn increments on weekdays from 10:15pm for Mike, and from 5:15am for me.
They don't call this the Iron Man for nothing.
Two novice players; late night and early morning play. It all adds up to something. Hard to say what exactly, but let's put it this way: if you are reading this AAR for tips on good game play, you may wish to reconsider how best to invest your time ...
Applying a method best described as the dartboard, I bid three for the Red Army.
Mike bids two, so I am in charge of 62nd Army as it attempts to avoid being driven into the Volga.
To win, I need to hang onto at least three of the riverside built up areas (the seven +3 TEM areas are strung out from north to south along the Volga). Mike needs to take five of the seven for the win.
One of the great mysteries is the tactical cards: at the start of the game I have no idea what they might contain - either mine or Mike's - for good or ill.
Mike's offensive opens south of the Tsaritsa River. After pummelling the Volga bank area below the Tsaritsa with heavy artillery, Mike sends in 29th Motorised Division with an Assault. Those things are ugly from a Soviet perspective (and for all I knew, Mike could be getting a hand full of them every turn). The card allows the activated German units to fire then move, or move then fire (movement and fire are usually mutually exclusive alternatives).
29 Mot.'s attack inflicts some serious casualty points on my guys in Railroad Station 2. I concede the area to preserve troops, falling back to the Grain Elevator.
I also start to pull in my troops from the outlying set up areas, so no-one will be in +1 TEM after this turn (except, of course, on the burial mound - which is worth an extra tactical card to the side which controls it).
So far the game is following the historical script in the south (coincidentally I started reading David M Glantz's Armageddon in Stalingrad just before the game choices for round five came up).
One area down. Zero German casualties, and not really a decent shot fired in anger by Chuikov's troops. And we are only half a dozen impulses into the game.
At this point my self-esteem preservation instincts kick in: "this game is obviously very tough on the Soviets", I said to myself (quite wrongly as it turns out).
The rest of the turn is less harrowing: some of the 62nd Army perished in arty and air barrages (high attack value cards available to the Germans), but no serious losses, and no further incursions by the invader.
Oddly, the easy sweep on Turn 1 along the Volga to the Tsaritsa works in my favour. I think Mike and I shared a false perception that the Red Army would be brittle, or easily swept aside.
Nothing could be further from the truth: the Soviets have a lot of units. Many of them exist for the sole purpose of occupying territory and absorbing casualties (there are a lot of "0" attack factor units, which usually can't make an attack). Every turn there are more of them: usually enough to at least replace the losses suffered during the turn; sometimes more than enough.
And there is enough room to fall back when the time comes.
The Soviets can absorb large numbers of damage points. If there are retreat routes, and fresh troops to replace those which retreat or are destroyed, the Germans can struggle to penetrate to the river and take control of areas.
Mike found that out the hard way: he fired lots of arty, air and ground fire at my guys and scored many, many hits. But not enough kills, and not enough to prevent me constantly feeding new troops into the front line.
After the initial drive in the south, the German thrust lost impetus. By not closing in (ie moving into the Soviet areas and risking casualties), the Germans kept their losses low (hardly a unit destroyed in the game) but made it too easy for the Soviet infantry to rush straight from the ferry landings into the front line (the Grain Elevator; the Army Barracks; Mamayev Kurgan; the workers' settlements).
Because of that, the vast majority of damage points I suffered were taken as flips and retreats, without critically weakening the front line (as new guys rushed up to replace those who retreated). Often, I was able to retreat laterally - effectively reinforcing one area as I retreated from another.
In the second half of the game, I adopted the tactic of pushing single Soviet infantry units into adjacent areas occupied by German infantry, to force Mike to eliminate those sacrificial units in order to free up his infantry to move.
When Mike did move - such as pushing an entire infantry division onto Mamayev Kurgan - I was able to break up his attacks with multiple fire attacks, which pushed him back. If he had his time over, Mike would probably take some of those hits as casualties rather than retreats - but there are lots of Red Army units, so his caution was understandable.
By turns 5 and 6 it was clear Mike would not be able to take the areas he needed. We played to a conclusion with only one +3 area under German control (which fell early on turn 1).
A good game for a pair of first timers. It obviously requires some highly aggressive play on the German side. Although they have a lot of firepower, which it is tempting to use, the key (I think) is locking horns with 62nd Army by moving large forces forward to make the retreat vs loss decision much harder: if it will not be possible to move up a unit to replace a guy who retreats, retreating is a harder call.
That kind of "clinch" lessens the German use of firepower, but would make movement, and reinforcing weak points, a difficult task for the Soviets.
It was a pleasure to meet and play Mike using the wonders of VASSAL and Skype, and an enjoyable game too.
I would play SoS again if the opportunity arose - perhaps as the other side to see how valid my theories really are!
One of the joys of the Iron Man is playing a variety of games which I might not otherwise have played. Another is meeting fellow gamers from around the globe. Thanks Mike, Ken and MMP.