Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Awful Dawn…

A review of the VPG/GMT solitaire disaster called Soviet Dawn

In January I received  my C3I issue 27. Beside some good contents and an a big boring piece on the next COIN game (well as much I like Volko and Mark, that one was a big hot air balloon that eat space)  there was also a little solitaire game called Soviet Dawn. It was a VPG product now published by GMT. I like solitaire games and I do not dislike the Russian Civil War (even if I do not like the Bolos). In the game you take the role of that murdering bastard of Lenin and his closest accomplices murdering your way to control the whole Russia against a plethora of people trying to stop you. The game is quite small: a deck of small cards, an handful of counters, a small map.  Well despite my aversion for the bolos I decide to give it a try to understand more about States of Siege, the solitaire games series from VPG that seems so popular. What follow is the result of my misguided attempts (I played it several times)  to make this endeavor worthy of my time…

The game is simple, actually simplistic but it is better I save the comments for later. The map is an image of European and transcaucasian Russia with some track placed over it. Each game turn has four phases. First you turn up the top card of the deck. Then you apply the event or event described, often moving enemy pieces and maybve getting some DRM here and there. Then you launch our actions, rolling against enemy unit to force it to withdraw or rolling on the political tracks to push it upward or rolling a die, to get a si and roll again on the Red Army table to get some special bonus. Then you do some special activity on the political front if mandated by the card and then rinse and repeat. 
This is the package, snake and ladders with pasted history

Well the game play is pretty straightforward, read the card, move the enemy fronts, decide how to spend your action points, do the eventual end turn political roll, rinse, repeat nothing complicated. You can complete a game in 40-45 minutes even less. But  what is the purpose? Your decisions are a bare minimum. You have on average two action per turn. If the good guys are advancing you spend them as offensives to force them back. If you have some breathing space you try to reform the Red Army and get the powerful bonuses that this activity grants you (if you are lucky and roll the initial 6). If you need you roll on the political index. But what this die rolling gives to you? In my opinion nothing. The history text on the card is just text, without any real connection to the game. Your activities appear to be random in the end. There is no shifting of resources, movement of elite formations, search for decent commanders. Yes you can argue that these are abstractions but this time the abstractions are ludicrous. It is not a simulation, it is not even a game. A lot of idiots… ahem BGG posters  (or Bolt Action and flames of War players it seems) live in a world where there is a dichotomy between a good simulation and a good game. Well ladies and gentlemen Soviet Dawn proves you can have a stupid game and a silly simulation in the same package.

One of the infamous cards.

The main issue I have is that you have no control on your army. Yes you can decide against which track to roll (I refuse to call them areas, fronts, or any other term, the blandness of the system stops me to associate these things to any real concept) and if you want to employ some of your reserve offensive, but after that you have no control. Modifiers are given by the cards. The presence of these modifiers creates also another problem. Use them or lose them. Well, if I got a good general why I am forced to use him in a specific area? How I know that in the next turn I will not have his services again? Stockpiling troops and supplies for an offensive? Forget it. There is no way to plan in advance. You get a random number of actions and a fixed number of reserve actions. Everything else is outside your control span. Diplomacy? Politics? Force planning? Sorry kid, even if you are the murderous dictator you do not control anything in your country… 

Plain graphic, clean but uninspiring on the counters, ok Rodger did a good job on the period posters but this is all
Forget about military details. There are no armies to control. There are no resources to allocate. Decisions like concentrating the best units here, and fighting an holding action there are outside your grasp. Actually the game system does not even know what an holding action is. The enemy pieces will advance automatically. I know, you can said No the reserve offensive provides you some control... but what the heck are the reserve offensives? Central reserve forces? well if they are my central reserve why I cannot reconstitute it over time?

Soviet Dawn is the classical case of taking the design for effect to the point where it has no more relation with the process. Yes the front will stabilize, advance, retreat, but not for the right reason. Seriously, I understand that solitaire games need to have a strong random event and constraints on the player’s actions, but in that case these elements outweighs anything else.  I do not even understand how that game can be called a game. You are not playing, you are just rolling dices. Let’s stay away from the simulation part of wargaming, because here the designer had just skipped that lessons from the manual.

Of course this sense of disgust was not helped by the fact I was forcing to play the bolos. But it is not a problem of Soviet Dawn and its design’s decision to put me in Lenin’s filthy boots. The disgust stems from the system.  In the end the entire engine rest on the cards. Get good cards and you will win, get bad ones and you will lose. In States of Siege in general and in Soviet Dawn in particular the player is here just for a free ride. He is not really implementing any strategy or discovering a narrative, but simply doing almost robotic actions and rolling dices.  To a certain extent it reminds me of another thing that should never have appeared on this earth, Twilight Struggle. As vomit Struggle also Awful Dawn give you events with no relation with what is happening in your game world. Of course I admit that certain events does not depend from on map actions, but sometime the randomness of the events simply destroy any 

For someone like me that has spent the last 6 years hearing about how good are simple games at school this is just further evidence that I knew better than my teacher. Ok, maybe not, but certainly  Soviet Dawn is the clear example of what I do not like in a wargame.  Abstracting everything until it loses any kind of relationship with the subject matter. I know that a Luftwaffe Colonel uses games from this series for teaching purposes. I can understand why and how. Managing the chaotic part could be a challenge for a leadership class.  Having been told how the games are used also make me understanding the process, yet it  is natural to think that if a game from this series is considered an historical simulation maybe there was a strong reason why the Germans lost both world war… of course I respect Uwe and that was just a snide comment (more for the benefit of the Heer fanatics that plague the wargaming world). I understand the purpose of Uwe’s efforts and I will not speak ill of someone who once called me on my mobile telling me ‘It is the Luftwaffe!’ (actually the exact words were: ‘Hello, here is Colonel Heilmann from the Luftwaffe’ but the thrill was there…). Anyway the basic idea is that Soviet Dawn fail in every aspect. It fails to provide cause and effect relationships (except the: Germany lose WW1, German army disappear from the Civil War, the Reds are happy).  Simplicity is not an answer and removing detail will not produce better games by default. Yes simplicity is working, the game could produce plausible results at times, the playing time is short but… but the price for this is a plain game without any real insight on the period and whit history being just a placard pasted upon it. The plausible results reads more as an accident rather than a design. The majority of time you look at your victories or defeats and you cannot really understand what happened, how history had been reproduced or changed. It gives also a strong biased and doctored version of history. It also looks ugly. If my purpose is just to roll dice and playing on a ladder awf… ahem Soviet Dawn is the perfect game. If I play to learn something… well I will not play this excuse of a wargame.

Summing up while States of Siege maybe contain some good ideas the implementation of these ideas is so awkward and incompetent that you need to ask yourself how VPG can still be alive. As much people on BGG bash Avalanche Press and Decision Games Victory Point Games is a fine purveyor of trash. I will play Panzergrenadier or D-Day at Omaha Beach every day over this little shitty game. It is a disservice to the wargaming community. Hopefully sooner or later VPG games will disappear. That day the wargame community will score a victory.

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