Deceptive challenges

For a seemingly straightforward game, The Caucasus Campaign can present both players with some very difficult challenges. It’s one of those games that looks fairly “normal” at first blush, but ends up something of a bear to understand.

Veteran gamers will likely discover that part of their challenge is working through TCC’s disarming familiarity. Both the game system and the situation will tempt them to think “I’ve seen this before. I know what to do.”

Anyone who thinks that is probably in for a rough ride.

The Soviet player has the wider margin of error – but only just. In general, the Soviets’ rag-tag starting forces have to run like hell and try to husband as much strength as possible to defend the vital (and rugged) southern reaches of the map. Trying to stage any kind of substantial early-game fight in open terrain will only lead to disaster.

Because they lack the mobility of the Axis, a frightening number of Soviet units are going to bite the dust no matter what. A major key to Soviet play is to admit this up front and then try to turn those sacrifices into as much of a delay as possible. If they leave too much in front of the Axis grinder, they may not have enough strength left to defend the vital mountain passes. If they try to save too much – or choose to delay in the wrong locations – they may find their efforts simply knocked aside and a large portion of their strength threatened with encirclement.

It’s less of a pell-mell retreat than some Soviet players may realize.  They also have to be sensitive to the Axis player’s style of play and take advantage of any opportunity presented for additional trouble-making. Delaying the fall of a critical location along the lines of communication to the south by even one turn (or maybe even by one movement impulse) can seriously unhinge the Axis timetable.

In my experience, the Axis assault is truly balanced on a razor’s edge. They have to cover a lot of territory quickly and inflict maximum pain on the Soviets in the process. Understanding how to take advantage of the positive CRT shifts their forces can generate is absolutely crucial to Axis success. When winter arrives later in the game, trying to do anything in the neighborhood of the mountain passes – move, fight, even supply – is going to become a very difficult process.

But the Axis faces an additional challenge in that they can’t simply ignore the Soviet eastern coastal enclaves. Some of their strength has to be diverted from the ‘main’ thrust to tackle some tough fighting along the Black Sea. Taman must be dealt with early in the game. Novorossiysk also needs to be ‘corked’ in order to threaten the flank of the Soviet defense.

Axis players no doubt will understand that time is not on their side. What they may not grasp is that this is an understatement. Fighting around the mountain passes is going to be brutal, bloody and (most importantly) time-consuming. If the Axis is not generating a significant threat in the south on or near the historical timeline, they’re going to face an improbable road to victory.

Note, however, that staying ‘on schedule’ is going to be an uncomfortable experience at best. Those high-quality, mobile German divisions are going to take a beating, and the Axis player is going to be hard-pressed to keep them going with replacements – especially before “Hitler Takes Command” kicks in on Turn 7.

Ah, yes. “Hitler Takes Command”.  When this event kicks in and doubles the Axis replacement rate, the Soviet player will take little comfort in the knowledge that he has achieved one of the strategic goals of his campaign: The diversion of Axis resources from the fighting around Stalingrad. It’s an event that’s ‘hard wired’ into the game’s structure – so it can’t even be counted as a moral victory for the battered Red Army – but it does help to put the campaign into a broader, historical perspective. The real trick for the Soviets is to not surrender the OTHER strategic objective of the campaign, the rich oilfields south of the Caucasus.

So, in the final analysis is the game balanced? In a nutshell,  I think so. Axis players certainly face a steeper learning curve in that they must both play the aggressor and see beyond the game’s deceptively familiar opening situation. Methodical players seeking large encirclements or players who don’t grasp the need to trade some casualties for speed of advance are in for some rough handling in the second half of the game.

The Soviet player’s position is not at all as simple as it may first seem, either. The initial deployment of the Red Army is universally weak, but not all of those understrength divisions can be considered cannon fodder. Some of them have to be saved in order to jump-start the buildup the Soviets will need to defend the most important victory locations later in the game.

The Soviet player also needs to avoid the temptation to treat his tank brigades lightly. In fact, the Soviets should take great care to protect these rare assets. While they aren’t exactly powerful combat units, they are one of the rare items the Soviets have that they can use to cancel Axis armor shifts on the CRT. They should only be exposed to the risks of combat when their armor shift is needed in a critical battle.

All things considered, the Caucasus Campaign is a very clean, clever and enjoyable game. I think perhaps that Ukraine ’43 still ranks as my personal favorite Mark Simonitch design, but TCC has quickly climbed into a very close second place.

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