A little test in the Caucasus

In GMT’s The Caucasus Campaign, I think it’s pretty clear that the Axis player faces a very tough task. The burden of playing the aggressor  is on the Axis, and they have to reach some very difficult objectives in order to win the game. Also, as often happens in East Front games, time is not on their side.

Are the game’s victory conditions balanced? Without a sampling of several score games played by experienced players to draw upon, that’s difficult to say. Early reports I’ve read from numerous playings (and my own first few plays) ended in more Soviet victories than Axis wins. But does that indicate a problem with play balance, or does it simply mean that the Axis player faces a higher learning curve?

In ferreting out the game’s balance, one issue to address is whether or not the various game mechanisms favor one side or the other – and whether or not the game system allows or inhibits historical outcomes.

In plainer English, what I mean is this: If you follow the rules, is it possible for you to play a game that broadly follows the historical model? I use the term “broadly” here because we are, after all, talking about a game – and from time to time a game has to abstract a few things. Still, it should be possible to closely approximate things like historical rates of advance or loss rates regardless of abstractions.

Three turns to Maikop and Krasnodar

Three turns to Maikop and Krasnodar

I call it a “Minsk Test”. A good friend of mine enjoys playing, in particular, operational/strategic level games on the opening of the war in the East. In order to avoid wasting time on game systems that don’t “work” for him – and to save money – he has a fairly straightforward test that he applies to any game that covers the opening of Operation Barbarossa: Can the Germans capture Minsk in a week? If not, heave-ho over the side it goes.

It’s an interesting test in that it seems fairly simple. But in reality it’s a complex, subjective test of a number of important factors: Not just game systems like movement and combat, but also things like time scale, map scale and the modeling of operational fluidity.

Mind you, the test isn’t whether or not the Germans can ALWAYS capture Minsk in a week. Consistency isn’t the question, especially if you consider the historical result of the Germans reaching Minsk on June 28 to be among ‘best case’ results. The test is whether or not the game system allows for it to happen at all.

If a game flunks the Minsk Test, does that mean it’s crap? Not necessarily. Such tests are quite subjective.  But it can be a very valuable tool for assessing the suitability of a game’s systems and scale for the event it’s trying to model. Obviously, the ‘original’ Minsk Test puts games with a turn ‘scale’ of longer than one week on shaky ground – but as long as the game can keep up with history, it can still pass the test.

[In the interests of full disclosure I'll note that my friend and I both believe a turn scale of 7-10 days is the most appropriate for big, East Front games. For quite some time my personal favorite in the Big East Front genre has been the Six Angles version of Mazahiro Yamazaki's "War for the Motherland", which features a sliding time scale that depends on the time year. The 'Americanized' version of the game, MMP's "Red Star Rising", is pretty good, too.]

So. Is there a Minsk Test that can be used to assess the way things work in The Caucasus Campaign? In a nutshell, yes.

In fact, there are two Minsk Tests. Either one will do. Historically, 1st Panzer Army captured Maikop on August 9 (Turn 3) while 17th Army took control of the Kuban crossings at Krasnodar on August 14 (Turn 3 again). 

Objectives nearer the start line don’t give a true measure of the system. You don’t have to be too sharp an Axis player, I think, to take Salsk on the first turn, for example. Can the Axis capture both Krasnodar and Maikop by Turn 3? Yes. But it’s better than that: If the Axis player wants to win the game, he NEEDS to have both objectives in hand by the end of turn 3.

Get a patrol on Mt. Elbrus by August 25, win a prize.

Get a patrol on Mt. Elbrus by August 25, win a prize.

And that takes us full circle back to the issue of the Axis player’s learning curve.

Put simply, one of the important lessons to learn is that those powerful German mechanized divisions are NOT going to arrive at either Krasnodar or Maikop in the company of a neat, supportive line of happy and well-ordered infantry divisions. In order to achieve the early-game must-have objectives he needs for a shot at winning, an Axis player will have to put his mechanized units at some risk and race full-throttle for key points.

Of course, this means that the Axis is highly likely to lose a number of valuable mech steps that will take some time to replace. But the Axis really has only two choices here: 1) Go balls-out and hopefully reach critical deep locations with some under-strength divisions before the Soviets can build up their forces or 2) Reach those critical deep locations with lighter losses, but 1 or 2 turns after the Soviets have enough of a defense in place to kill all but a longshot chance of the Axis winning the game.

A second important lesson for the Axis player to learn: In the critical early phase through Turn 4, FEAR can slow you down more than the Soviet Army.  Most players familiar with any sort of East Front game fear step losses when they play as the Germans, and they especially fear panzer/mech step losses. As the man said: “And so it goes…” Managing fear and balancing risks is key to Axis success in this game.

Historically, the Germans made impressive territorial gains in the opening stages of their Caucasus Campaign. But recall that their forces were fairly threadbare by the time Hitler stuck his nose into things (and started shifting more resources into the theater). The Axis paid a high price for their territorial gains in the Caucasus. Any Axis player in The Caucasus Campaign will likely have the pleasure of the same (cardboard) experience.

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