Sunday, February 16, 2014

Lock 'n Load Heroes of Stalingrad - Gameplay Notes (1 of 3) - What if they gave a war and nobody came?

Lock 'n Load Heroes of Stalingrad
Designed by Mark H. Walker
Published by Matrix/Slitherine Games
U$D 39.99 Digital Edition
U$D 54.99 Digital and Boxed Edition

This board game to PC port has been years in the making and is getting a lot of praise from both board and PC gamers. This is my hands-on experience with it, including some game play notes. This is not a game review, not a treatise in tactical urban warfare and not an AAR. I just want to play and write about it. Spoilers ahead.

The scenario I chose was "Pavlov's House", a murderous affair of urban hell that I played as the Germans against the computer. The game itself features many scenarios in villages and countryside too.

In the screenshot above you can see the initial setup. Every counter represents a leader, a squad, a half squad, a hero (more on that later), a vehicle, a tank, a weapons team and other characters like the famous "little girl" in the original board game (a civilian that has to be kept alive and escorted out of danger in the first mission of the German campaign). Weapons dropped by fallen troops (MGs, molotov cocktails, satchel charges, etc) also have individual counters and can be assigned by the players to troops in the same hex.

Each hex is 50 meters wide, and the time is partitioned into turns that last 2 to 4 minutes of simulated time. There are several types of terrain hexes, each one providing modifiers to movement, cover and concealment. Each turn is divided in three phases: rally phase (each side is allowed to rally their troops and to deploy/pack heavy weapons), and operations phase (fire and maneuver) and an administrative phase (remove markers for fire and movement, smoke and others).

The operations phase is where the thick of the action occurs. This phase sees the players alternating their actions for fire and movement, one counter or one stack at a time. Every time a player fires or moves a counter or a stack is said to have executed a "pulse". The alternating nature of the pulses provides a fluid game play experience with punches and counter punches from both sides occurring during the same turn. Heroes' game play does not feature a WEGO turn system, but the short pulses for each side come pretty darn close to something like it.

So it goes my first move. And is a bad one. Sgt Baumann and 3 infantry squads (southmost Germn stack) come out from cover and get immediately fired upon by a Soviet MG (top right corner of the screenshot), which now has become visible. The landsers, including its leader take no casualties but morale hits.
As a true board game port, fire and melee results are calculated from dice throws. There is an option to turn the dice throws out of sight and just summarize the results. But I enjoy the communion with the game's rule set and as a bonus I am getting lots of kicks out of close calls. Needing a 5 or less and getting a 6 makes me feel like war is so unfair for my boys.

On another note, the above screenshot shows how much the informational panels take out from the map during the fire resolution. Not a big fan of that.

A zoomed out view of the map, showing Sgt. Baumann's stack (red highlighted hexagon).
Good! My first pulse spent and nobody died. Well, that stack of shaken German infantry is not good news at all. The game rules allow only two types of morale: "good order" and "shaken". The word shaken is just two inches short of an euphemism in Heroes: shaken units can't off course fire, have their movement points reduced and are scaring easy to mop up in melee combat. It's a bit more like shell-shocked than just shaken. You will see this a few turns ahead.

The computer opponent stayed quiet during his/her pulse and I start my second pulse activating and moving a Pz IIIH towards the front. The movement interface shows how many movement points are spent at each hex. The total allowance in this case was 10 (information panel in the right says "MV: 10".
Just a quick note about tanks and armor. Facing is accounted for during fire resolution so after moving the PzIII, I rotate it left to face the target area. This is achieved with a button in the action bar (the strip at the bottom of the screenshot).
The computer opponent remains unseen and silent during its pulse. The MG has already fired (note the red "fired" marker on top of it) and will remain inactive until the next turn. During my pulse, I activate and move Lt. Plassmann's stack. His men swiftly move from one building (purple shaded hexagon) to another without drawing enemy fire. Note how a "moved" green marker has been added to each unit in the stack).
Here comes another great game rule that is extremely useful: when a stack containing a leader is activated, stacks or units in adjacent hexes (shaded green in the screenshot above) can be activated to. In the case above, I could have used that HMG team for suppressive fire during the same pulse.

Now is the turn pulse of Lt. Wurtz to start moving. This time I choose a "low crawl" (highlighted button in the action bar). Units moving in a "low crawl" mode are not easy to spot and fire upon by the enemy. Unless they are in open terrain like these brave men.
Lt. Wurtz's move has opened the possibility of activating the pioneers of Lt. Koch, but I am not feeling very cocky after the debacle of shaken men a hundred meters south. So I decide to keep them in cover and just fire with them. The target is that Soviet MG in the top right corner. The pioneer's normal fire range is just 3 hexes (middle number in the unit's counter) but one of the squads carries a MG34, which has a range of 9. 
The throw of the dice is a 5, the shifts are from the use of support weapons (+2), the presence of a leader (+1) and the fact that I am playing at a low difficulty level (+1).

It was a long shot. The Soviet MG is cozy and in great cover. No effect!

As turn one comes to a close and I almost have no actions available for my troops, the Soviets open up with gusto. Mortar rounds rain on Sgt Baumann's men (fire for effect marker) and an AT gun shovels a round against that Pz III I moved earlier (hexagon highlighted red). No serious damage, but I am getting nervous.
Super! An AT rifle team is taking potshots at my Pz III (hexagon highlighted red). The range is tad high and the rounds bounce off the hull, harmlessly.
This has been only one turn and for better or worse the battle has been eventful. As you may have noticed, Heroes features a fog of war system. Enemy units are seen after firing or moving, or if they are in an open hexagon. There is more than this to the game's sighting system and that will be explained in the next installment.

The fight is on and it will be bloody. No hopes to brush aside the Soviets with an effortless sweep of firepower. In every scenario I have started, the battlefield looks equally quiet and treacherous during the opening moves. Makes my soldiers wish that, just for once, the enemy won't show up.



Chris said...

Thanks JC for posting this. I've been following development and looking forward to this title.

RangerX3X said...

Who creates a set of tutorial scenarios where one (probably more?) is classified as “multiplayer only”?

Gibsonm said...

Don’t take this the wrong way but basically SL / ASL with the computer rolling the dice?

RangerX3X said...

The game looks really good and is different from anything else I own.

Doug Miller said...

Picked this up this evening and am playing the tutorials. I'm hoping the scenarios are better, because right now I'm not feeling the love.

jack dempsey said...

This game "blows"!
AI is lame!
No undo button, forget to press assault move "button" on tank... move one hex, uh-oh no can shoot!!!
Can run right up the street and melee a known shaken unit, without consequence.
Absolutely NO DOCUMENTATION regarding DIY / scenario editor!
Terrible voices / accents in Rally Phase!
However, the game board and counters are nice to look at.
What junk!