In between assorted adventures in reality, lately I’ve been on a small binge of experimenting with off-brand wargames. By “off brand” I mean games produced by companies other than the usual alphabetical suspects like GMT, MMP, LNL, ATO or DG. It’s taken a while to get these new games onto the table, but I’m finally starting to make some progress.
And I haven’t even needed therapy.
The first of the batch to get seriously de-boxed and deployed beneath the plexiglass is a short-run production from Three Crowns Games in Sweden called “Army Group Narwa” — or “Narva” as I learned it in my distant and misspent youth.
It’s not one of the better known campaigns on the East Front, but it’s pretty interesting. What’s a Narva? It’s a city — located on the Narva River — on the border between Estonia and (nowadays) Russia. After the Leningrad-Novgorod offensive of January 1944, Stalin wanted the Red Army to overrun Estonia as quickly as possible. Unfortunately for the Soviet Leningrad Front, the Germans were pretty good at defending marshy, mucky rivers and “as quickly as possible” turned out to be more on the order of seven months.
Basically an operational game, Army Group Narwa covers the early phase of the Narva Bridgehead battles — February through April, 1944. It doesn’t cover the later German retreat from the river line, which was a fascinating campaign in itself.
Designed by Stefan Ekstrom, Army Group Narwa uses a rules set that falls somewhere in the middle of the complexity scale. The rule book runs 18 pages (pretty light for an operational game these days) and includes scenarios, some short designer notes, plus a few odds and ends.
Most of it is familiar design territory. Chit pull activation with a few small twists. Combat is odds based, with results a combination of retreats and step losses. There are a number of results on the CRT that enforce an additional mandatory step loss on the Soviets, while some types of terrain negate all or part of retreat results. Only a few modifiers impact combat, so it’s usually quick to resolve. Unit values include a Morale rating; cross-referencing the best opposing morales in a given combat, then rolling a d6 may yield additional shifts on the CRT. The actual combat result is a second d6 roll. It goes pretty fast.
Graphically, it’s not a bad-looking game — although I’ve got some gripes. The map’s art scheme has a nice “tac chart” feel to it and is easy to read. Hex numbers are printed in only the tenth hex of each column in a style familiar to anybody who’s played something from The Gamers. It’s a style that de-clutters the map, but it can make setup something of a chore.
The counter artwork complicates setup because the unit ID numbers are printed in a small, thick font that tends to make the numbers block up and difficult to read. Combat strengths are also printed in white type, which is a bit of a bear to read against the light gray background of the German counters. The worst issue shows up on the German SS counters, which have their movement allowance printed in black on a black background. There’s a very fine, white outline stroke around the numbers, but they’re still essentially unreadable.
Despite the graphical gaffes, game play shakes out to be tense and bloody. Neither side sets up with anywhere near their full OOB on the map. German reinforcements rush to shore up their tenuous defenses while arriving Soviet troops play beat-the-clock. The great gobs of troops that arrive as the game progresses give players more flexibility to shape the campaign than you would think from the initial scattered appearance of the situation.
The German position is anchored on the prepared defenses around Narva, but the Soviet player isn’t constrained to simply bludgeon his way through the bridgehead. Several points along the river above Narva can be hotly contested. Depending on how the Soviets want to tackle things, they can generate a real threat to German supply lines. A Soviet corps or two running around loose in the backfield can cause the Narva defense to collapse pretty rapidly. If the Reds seriously breach the river line above the city, the German player definitely has his hands full.
For players used to East Front games set earlier in the war, AG Narwa can be a real eye-opener. The German player can’t depend on the superior quality of his troops as a cure-all to save every situation. Some of the German troops are still quite good — those ‘A’ morale SS units, for example — but many of the formations are quite brittle. Prepared defenses can absorb a lot of damage, but German units caught in other terrain can bleed away quickly. Replacement steps generally appear only as a result of random events, so units that get dead tend to stay dead. It’s also worth noting that the Soviets have overwhelming air superiority, so they can muscle-up with some CRT column shifts from air support when they need them.