Classic Reviews: Von Manstein’s Backhand Blow (GMT Games)

On #TBT, we bring you the occasional classic article – an older review or analysis piece we wanted to rescue

Michael Eckenfels, 8 November 2018

The Schwerpunkt series of GMT games is aptly named: a focused, cohesive effort on a

VMBB Box Cover

Box Cover

relatively contracted part of World War II. The first (and currently, only) game in this series, Von Manstein’s Backhand Blow, contemplates admirably the dire situation facing the Wehrmacht in early 1943, with a beautiful map, colorful playing pieces, and a very easy system of play.

BACKGROUND

The German retreat from the Caucasus and Stalingrad is still underway when the Soviets, smelling blood and drunk with victory, give the South and Southwestern Fronts orders to push their offensives to the Sea of Azov. While the Stalingrad pocket had Sixth Army and about twenty-six divisions, the remaining formations of Army Group South totaled approximately forty-one more. If, the Soviets reasoned, their troops could force their way to the coast, the better part of several hundred thousand more hardened German troops could be caught in a massive trap that made Stalingrad look like a minor opening act.

While the Soviets had massive and overwhelming military power on their side, they lacked two things: supply, and the presence of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein. The former was stretched to the breaking point from the huge effort to break the surrounded Sixth Army and crush several Axis Allied armies; sweeping advances had overstretched their supply lines while retreat had shortened the Germans’. As for the latter, it has been argued that von Manstein was one of Germany’s most brilliant tactical and operational leaders; case in point, Von Manstein’s Backhand Blow. His concentration of German armor at critical spots and tactical acumen saved the Germans from certain destruction during that cold month of February 1943.

What really came to be was a wild, tumbling battle where German tactical superiority made its weight felt against still-bumbling Soviet forces that had not quite yet mastered the combined-arms method. The Germans were, and are in this game, grossly outnumbered and must rely on concentration of forces at Soviet weak spots to win the day.

 

COMPONENTS

Von Manstein’s Backhand Blow comes complete with:

  • One 22” by 34” map
  • 342 die-cut counters
  • Two rules booklets
  • Seven player aid cards
  • Two six-sided dice

The counters are beautiful to behold – attractively colored and finely detailed down to unit designations. The specific designations were researched by Dirk Blennemann; there’s little in the way of generic or non-historical units in this game. Take, for instance, a few of the units from the Germans’ side:

  • Urlauber-Battalion (a battalion formed out of men returning from leave)
  • Wach-Bataillon Herman Goring (the Guard Battalion Hermann Goering)
  • SS-Unterfuhrer-Schule (Waffen-SS NCO school)

To me, pushing around a counter that has “SS-Unterfuhrer-Schule” on it is a lot more satisfying than some generic infantry unit, even making their loss something to be considered before committing them to battle.

Unit color schemes are nationality-specific and further broken down by arm of service: the German Heer is gray, Luftwaffe is blue, and the Waffen-SS, black. The Soviets’ regular units are brown and Guard (elite) units are red. Just enough of a mix to make it interesting without being overwhelming.

These units further come in ‘steps,’ a standard measurement of combat power and indication of how many casualties a unit can take before being destroyed. All Soviet Tank and Cavalry Corps have four steps (and therefore are represented by two counters), while only a few German units have four steps. Some Soviet infantry divisions are equally large. The rest of the units, the majority, only have one or two steps.

Units are additionally measured by Combat Strength, a Tactical Rating, and a Movement Allowance. The Combat Strength and Movement Allowance are relatively self-explanatory, but the Tactical Rating bears mentioning. In any given Combat, before resolution, each side totals the number of Tactical Points they bring to bear in that combat. The side with a higher Tactical Rating has Tactical Superiority, and gets to use three combat chits; the other side only can use one. If both sides are tied, they each use two Combat Chits.

VMBB Counters

A sample of German (top) and Soviet (bottom) counters.  The colored units for the German (such as the three yellow  along the top left row) indicate they’re part of the same parent formation.

 

The Combat Chits are unique in that they ensure no two battles are ever alike. Each side has their own specific Chit color, and side-specific offerings. These Chits can greatly modify combat to stack odds in the favor of the player employing them; since these Chits affect all aspects of battle, including determination of Combat Strength employed and many die roll modifiers, there’s many options available. For example, the German’s ‘Blitzkrieg’ Combat Chit doubles the Combat Strength of all German motorized units for that combat; the Soviet’s Arty (Artillery) III Combat Chit allows them to modify the die roll by either adding or subtracting 3 (the choice is made based on whether they’re attacking or defending, and is up to the Soviet player). The die roll is always made by the Attacker, and is done based on combat odds on the appropriate CRT.

VMBB Other Counters

A sampling of other counters mixed with a few combat units.

Combat isn’t completely necessary, either; a defender that is comprised entirely of motorized units may elect to retreat two hexes instead of giving battle; the attacker may move into the vacated hex but cannot move further. This can be an effective tactic to use to draw the enemy into an unfavorable position (provided they’re not paying attention).

The inclusion of Random Events that occur on when, during Combat Resolution, a die roll of 2 or 12 (natural, without modifiers) makes for an even more flexible and interesting experience. Events range from getting bonus C3I points to unexpected replacements – they can mean the difference if properly used.

 

LAYOUT

Setup of this game is a snap thanks to the hex locations printed on the counters’ upper-right corner. If there’s an ‘R’ instead, it’s a Variable Reinforcement; those with a single-digit Turn Number are reinforcements for that upcoming Turn. This alleviates a lot of randomness by not allowing players to choose their own setup, which is a good or a bad thing depending on one’s point of view. Nevertheless, it makes for a speedy set-up and that is one of the largest hurdles that a gamer with a limited amount of time will appreciate greatly.

There are plenty of Player Aid cards, as well; besides one each for the German and Soviet players that details everything from a Reinforcement Schedule to Combat Chit descriptions, but also two general Player Aid Cards with tables printed for easy access, and one card with a large and easy to read Combat Results Table.

VMBB Upper Map

The upper portion of the Map, detailing all player tracks and the detailed terrain.

The map is vibrant, with a lot of color that brings out the relatively generic terrain (which follows hexes entirely, with no hexes being ‘half’ one and ‘half’ another) to a nice to look at display. Rivers are detailed well with larger ones thick and pale blue and minor tributaries a squiggly dark blue. The various tracks and other record-keeping areas are displayed in different colors to really make them stand out from the sky blue background that surrounds the map.

VMBB Map

A zoomed-in portion of the Map, near Kharkov.

 

RULES

Two rulebooks are included: the base Schwerpunkt series, which provides an overall foundation for the game, and a book specific for Von Manstein’s Backhand Blow.

Something striking about this game is the fact that it caters to the solitaire gamer. Several solitaire-specific suggestions are made throughout the Von Manstein’s Backhand Blow rulebook, helping the player instead of making them guess at what to do. Not that this is usually a particularly difficult process, but the inclusion of this information indicates GMT recognizes that players can’t always locate an opponent when in the mood for some boardgame action.

The rulebooks are not huge and are easy to read, well laid out, and rules that require a reference to other rules are clearly marked. Since each rule is only a paragraph or two long (sometimes longer, but not often), there isn’t a ton of material to absorb on each point.

The ‘Schwerpunkt’ book promises, in the Designer’s Notes section, that learning the game for an experienced player takes no more than two hours, and teaching it to another player takes no more than 15 minutes. Most importantly, the game can be played in – gasp – one session, they claim. Well, they’re right. It took me about an hour and a half to get a feel for the game and explaining it really takes no more than ten to fifteen minutes; of course, getting the hang of it for them may take a bit longer, but the basics are easy enough to explain (“Oops! You were supposed to get a die roll modifier in that battle that I just won. Oh well…”). Mistakes happen but not nearly as often as with similar games and are cleared up relatively quickly.

Rules errata have been posted on GMT’s site here.

 

GAMEPLAY

Each Game Turn is sub-divided into eight Segments if playing the full game scenario, or seven if playing the shorter “Red Army’s High Water Mark” scenario (effectively, the latter scenario skips the last segment). They are:

  • Administrative Segment (various housekeeping chores are completed, such as Weather Determination and determining reinforcements)
  • First Soviet Schwerpunkt Segment (skipped during ‘Deep Mud’ weather turns)
  • First German Schwerpunkt Segment (also skipped during ‘Deep Mud’ turns)
  • Second Soviet Schwerpunkt Segment (skipped during both ‘Deep Mud’ and ‘Mud’ weather turns)
  • Second German Schwerpunkt Segment (also skipped during ‘Deep Mud’ and ‘Mud’ weather turns)
  • Soviet General Segment
  • German General Segment
  • Victory Check Segment

That may seem daunting, but it’s really easy to play out. Essentially, the weather plays a major role in the offensive operations of either side; if in a ‘Deep Mud’ turn, for example, movement and combat are severely restricted for both sides.

Combat and Movement occur either during a player’s Schwerpunkt or General Segment, where the addition of “C3I” points come into play. These points are accumulated and spent to allow units to move and/or fight, and the number of moves and/or fights are limited only to the number of C3I points a player is willing to spend. These points are spent and a table consulted to determine the number of Activity Points that a player may get. These Activity points may not be accumulated from turn to turn, in the way that C3I points are accumulated. Instead, they are spent immediately on the player’s Schwerpunkt or General Segments.

The player can indicate during their Segment if they wish to move first or fight first, before they roll for Activity Points. Sometimes this can result in no action being taken; the game system in essence provides a possible tripwire that is built in and never completely avoided; therefore, realism pervades this game more so than it does in other similar titles where players have near complete control over all units and their maneuverings on the battlefield.

 

SUMMARY

Gaming the Russian Front is an awesome experience; most of the ingredients for mobile warfare are already there (hardened German Panzer units, massive Soviet tank columns, both grappling with each other across the steppe, exchanging sledgehammer blows). The draw is otherwise inexplicable; this was truly an earth-shattering campaign and Von Manstein’s Backhand Blow is a microcosm of it: short, sharp, and vicious battles with near endless maneuvering and management of scarce resources. The challenge comes from many levels, involving husbanding supply and units, concentration of force, and maintaining a somewhat constant front against the enemy while maintaining a hold on important victory locations. The battles will ebb and flow like the tides around (and through) these important junctions, and with this game’s interesting random features, no two games are alike.

 


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