Michael Eckenfels, 7 March 2021
There’s more than a few battles out there that generate interest in the history behind them, which in turn create great games that are truly fun to play. There’s also little more like playing a game and getting a feel for what it might have been like to be there, fighting a desperate battle against incredible odds, knowing a much larger fate falls upon your shoulders, and history will turn in a sharp direction depending on if you succeed or fail.
David Thompson’s board game, Pavlov’s House, was released in 2018. The first of his “Valiant Defense’ series (which now sports two titles plus Pavlov’s House, with two more in the works as of this writing), the game simulates the desperate defense of this strategic location in central Stalingrad, during the height of that important and bloody battle. This multi-story apartment building was a lynchpin in the defenses of the Soviet 62nd Army, which at the time was barely clinging to the west bank of the Volga River, under relentless pressure from the Germans from several different directions. A small band of Soviets managed to wrest control of the structure from the Germans, and set up shop there. Given its location on 9th January Square, which was a large, open area giving observers in the House a great view for a good kilometer in every direction, the Germans wanted it back. Badly.
The board game puts you in the role of the defenders of Pavlov’s House, but also gives you responsibility from a higher level, in that you move supplies, determine anti-aircraft and artillery positions, move supplies, and several other choices. This review is covering the recent Steam release of this very game, for the computer (PC to be specific; this was also just released for the iPad as well, and I don’t expect the experience to be much more than tactile).
click images to enlarge
The landing screen is nice, using the same art as the box cover of the board game and giving the player more than a few options. Besides the game itself, there’s a rather detailed background to the battle should you wish to absorb that (which I think was included as a part of the board game). It’s always very nice to see things like this being included, because to a lot of us, the history is as important as the game. Knowing why things got to this point and how they ended up where they are helps put things in perspective. Whether you’ve read countless books on the subject or are completely new to learning military history, this information is very good.
There’s also an Instructions button, which gives you the rules of the game. It’s not complicated at all, but there is quite a bit going on. This rules section looks like it is completely faithful to the excellent rules provided in the board game.
The PC version (and I assume the iPad as well) has a Settings option too, where you can set your display preferences. You can also see any achievements you’ve acquired (some are better than others), as well as your past scores (ignore this in the following screenshot as I took it a bit ago and it took me a while to warm up to the game – that’s my story and I’m sticking to it).
The Tutorial option is the best place to start if you’re unfamiliar with the game; it’s probably the best place to start even if you are familiar with it, so you can get a feel for the user interface. This will give you a walkthrough of the basic concepts of the game, conveying a good understanding for me. It’s been a few months since I played the board game and this was very helpful to get me back up to speed.
INTERFACE AND GAMEPLAY
If you’re familiar with the board game, everything you see in your screen will be familiar; the only thing that won’t be is how to interact with everything. There is a tutorial for that, though, and an effective one at that; even those with little or no experience with the board game will find it easy to get into, as the tutorial covers the game from the start, walking you through how each function is performed in-game.
The interface shows the game board across the top, with card draws at the bottom, and other information displaying according to what function is selected or what stage of the game the player is within.
The game board is divided into three sections – at far left is the interior of Pavlov’s House, where the player will move the defenders around and set the condition of the House’s three walls, which can be reduced due to German actions (and repaired due to Soviet actions). In the middle is the area immediately surrounding Pavlov’s House, where the German tracks are displayed; there are six total that the Germans populate along, pushing slowly but surely towards the House itself. This is also where the player attempts to destroy incoming Germans – each German track is color-coded to match an interior space in Pavlov’s House, so only Soviet soldiers positioned in a green space, for example, can shoot at Germans in either of the two green tracks.
The final third of the board, at far right, is the area around the 62nd Army. It represents the overall logistic support of Pavlov’s House, including transport, communications, artillery, anti-air, and the 62nd Army Headquarters itself.
The game is divided into turns, each of which is divided into phases. In each turn, first comes the Soviet Card Phase, then the Wehrmacht Card Phase, and finally, the Soviet Action Phase.
In the Soviet Card Phase, four cards are drawn. These can either be ‘regular’ Soviet cards, each of which has a top and bottom section, or a Fog of War card, which is utterly useless to the player. In this Phase, the player can choose up to three Actions by selecting either a top or a bottom part of any of the available cards; once a top or bottom section is chosen, that card is discarded (you cannot choose both the top AND bottom of a card). Each of these Actions represents something you can do on the battlefield; for example, the 62nd Army allows you to perform a Storm Group assault (which is a separate attack you can undertake to attempt to earn more Victory Points), or maybe to add Supplies to the pool that can be sent across the Volga River to help shore up Pavlov’s House and its defenders. Each Action usually offers multiple options for the player, though sometimes you won’t have much of a choice.
For example, you may note from the images that there are spaces numbered 3 through 18, inclusive, on the map board. Each of these represents a certain aspect of the battle. For example, spaces 5, 6, and 7 represent the Volga Military Flotilla, which is your supply lifeline. Spaces 8 and 9 represent the 1083rd Anti-Aircraft Company. And so on.
When you select one of the Anti-Aircraft Actions from a Soviet card, as yet another example, you can either remove a Disruption marker from one of those unit’s spaces, or place an Anti-Aircraft token in the space. This token can then be used during the next Wehrmacht Card Phase to attempt to shoot down incoming Stuka dive bombers. You will see a lot of Stuka dive bombers. A lot. The Stuka bombing attacks will hit potentially several spaces, which can remove tokens you’ve already placed or make them unavailable with a Disruption token.
In the Wehrmacht Card Phase, you draw three Wehrmacht cards, which dictates what the Germans do that turn. This card pile is divided up into several of what I call ‘sections,’ each of which is divided up by a Resupply card. You go through the Wehrmacht card stack, performing their actions, then when a Resupply card is drawn, you have to feed the defenders in Pavlov’s House (did you move enough food there?), and the Wehrmacht cards will then become a little bit tougher. I think there’s four or so Resupply Cards in the deck.
The three Wehrmacht cards you draw can result in several different things, including placement of German troops (infantry or tanks) along a track in the middle map section, a German artillery attack on the House, a full-on Assault, or a Stuka dive bombing attack. The Stukas are a giant pain because they will mess up the rear areas, and as the game progresses, you’ll need to make hard choices about whether you want to remove Disruption tokens that they place, or place tokens for possible use. (Note: You can never go wrong with placing anti-aircraft tokens; this is a must-do in order to possibly fight off Stuka attacks.)
There are 62 total Wehrmacht cards in the deck. This represents your total game time – if you can survive through all 62 Wehrmacht card draws, you’ve done very well. You would then compile your VP score based on many factors, including how many defenders are in Pavlov’s House (the more, the better for you), how many German troops are in the middle section of the board (the more, the worse for you), and a few other things. It’s absolutely not unusual to have a negative score when you first place. Heck, I’ve played the board game many times, and this computer game many times, but look at this awfulness:
My first run with the computer game didn’t go so well (Major Defeat). I’ve since played it several times and it’s a challenge to get your score up in the positives.
In any case, once you finish drawing your three Wehrmacht Cards, you then go to the Soviet Action Phase, where you use the defenders in the House to perform up to three actions. Movement is separate from actions, so you can move reserves into the House, or move non-Disrupted/non-Exhausted soldiers to different spaces. Movement is absolutely essential as you’ll need to face off against the German assault directions quickly to avoid them overrunning your position.
Your actions can be things like Attack any German unit (which will eliminate them if successful) or Suppress them (which lets you cancel placement of a German unit). You can also attempt to repair the walls of the House, or place a Bulwark (which will stop a German unit from entering the House, but will consume the token).
Some Soviet soldiers have certain letters on their counter, allowing them to perform special Actions. For example, ‘F’ is a Forward Observer; if you have Artillery tokens on the other side of the Volga, they can direct their fire. Another is ‘C,’ which is Command, allowing that soldier to Recover up to three other Soviet soldiers from a Disrupted or Exhausted state.
You see, any Soviet soldier that is Disrupted (usually from German combat) or Exhausted (usually from performing most Actions) cannot do anything, so it is in the player’s best interest to get these soldiers Recovered as quickly as possible. Besides other untoward events, such as a German Sniper card, any Soviet unit that is Disrupted twice is eliminated.
There’s a lot going on here with the game, and it might seem overwhelming, but it’s rather elegant, actually, as to how everything is interlocked. The choices you make have far-reaching consequences, often well outside of your control, so you can only do your best to mitigate what you can and prepare your own plans to hopefully ‘get ahead’ of what the German card draws do to your units and map board.
For example, when you draw a Resupply card during the Wehrmacht Card Phase, every three Soviet soldier counters has to be ‘fed’ with one Food token. You start with two Food tokens, so you can feed up to six Soviet counters. This is enough at start, but you’ll soon have to try to plan ahead while you can to bring more Food tokens into the House, because you’ll inevitably have more defenders there. You bring Food over via the Volga Military Flotilla, and this can get destroyed by German Stuka attacks.
Besides Food, there’s also First Aid tokens, which will ‘save’ a Soviet counter from death (e.g., from a successful German Sniper attack or a second Disruption occurrence). There’s also Ammo tokens, which can be used for Suppression – a very effective tactic, representing a copious expenditure of ammunition.
Part of the fun of this game is trying out all the different in-game effects and seeing how it helps your game. The randomness of card draws and die rolls keep things interesting, but your meaningful decisions pile up quickly when it comes to where you position the Soviet soldiers, which Germans you attack, what Supplies you bring over, which spaces you remove Disruption tokens from or populate with useful tokens, among many other things.
I’m a huge fan of the board game, so there is that. I love the meaningful decisions the game presents to you, and often it feels like you win or lose based on those very decisions instead of a random card draw or die roll. So the real question is, how well does this digital port represent that game? My observation is, it does it very well. It takes some getting used to, to figure out how things flow in the interface, but that only takes a few minutes. Once you’ve played a turn or two, the game will flow very well, and once you get your rear kicked in the first time, you’ll hopefully learn from your mistakes. Even if you do learn, the game will feel like it is truly trying to master you and put you in your place; you know what they say about ‘best laid plans’ and first contact with the enemy, and all that.
For the price, this is an outstanding buy, and will no doubt give players hours of enjoyment. I highly recommend picking up a copy, even if you have the board game – because sometimes it’s better to let the device do all the setting-up of the game for you so you can just enjoy the experience.
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