Shenandoah’s scoring system has players each pushing and pulling on the same victory point track rather than racking up individual scores. The score is for the game as a whole, and not for either side. For instance, at the beginning of the campaign, with the Russians holding the map and the Germans arriving from the west, the score is a tidy zero. When the Germans capture an important territory, the score goes up. There goes Rzhev! Now the score is three. But when Russia destroys German units or recaptures a territory, the score goes down. Russia just trashed the 36th Motorized Brigade for a point. Now the score is now two. And now they’ve liberated Rzhev. The score is negative one.
After the jump, what can this tell us about Drive on Moscow?
Unlike Battle of the Bulge, the predecessor to this sleek wargame, you’re not likely to get an instant victory condition in Drive on Moscow. Instead, you will have to play it out to its bitter end, like the Russians and Germans had to do in real life. Once the time limit is up, the total score will determine the outcome. If the score is lower than 21, the Russians have won. Germany will now lose World War II as expected. If the score is higher than 25, the Germans have won. Russia has crumbled and soon everyone in Europe will have to sprechen sie deutsch.
As you can see from that narrow spread between 21 and 25, Drive on Moscow is designed to play around a narrow band of points. In my first game — it was a learning game really, as I just started moving units around and figuring out the particulars as I went — I played as Russia. I won with -33 points. The Germans were unable to make any significant territorial gains and they furthermore squandered scads of units not doing it.
Okay, maybe the AI has a hard time with the offense. So for my next game, I let it play as the Russians, which means I needed at least 26 points to win. When it was over, I had 71 points. It would have been more, but by the time winter socked me in, I’d lost interest trying to keep Moscow cut off. The Russian counterattack [sic] cut through my encirclement and killed a couple of units. Big whoop. When I wasn’t paying attention, they even landed paratroopers in Bryansk and deprived me of about four points. If I hadn’t racked up 70 points by then, I might have still been playing in earnest and therefore tried to prevent these things. Nice moves, AI. At least you didn’t just stop playing. You’ve got heart, kid. I’ll give you that. Now about the game as a whole. Let’s talk…
It becomes painfully clear as you play Drive on Moscow that this is simply not a viable single-player game. The AI is incapable of playing the game as designed. It doesn’t understand what to do, much less how to do it. At what point does a developer realize they haven’t provided a sufficient AI? At what point do they concede it’s a terrible way to play the game and hardly even a learning tool, because it will just teach you bad habits when it comes to playing against other people? At what point do you confess your game is really only a multiplayer game? If Battlefield 4 can get away without including bots, why can’t Drive on Moscow?
It’s a shame, because as a multiplayer game, this is a pretty nice follow-up to the basics introduced in Battle of the Bulge. Shenandoah’s sleek Euro approach to boardgaming is far more captivating to a non-wargamer like me than the usual fiddly chit bits and under-the-hood numbers crunching. The trappings of historicity are like jewelry, from the interface to audio chatter to the historical outline to the interpretation of the map.
And oh what a map! It’s nothing short of gorgeous, glittering with possibility and personality, with plenty of breadth for the kinds of significant choices that come with lateral movement. There’s a juicy plum in either far corner from Germany’s line. Does the Axis push towards Moscow on one side or the drip feed of point up for grabs in the vulnerable city of Voronezh? You could reasonably call this game Drive on Voronezh. Shenandoah has staged a suitably epic Eastern Front opera to the intimacy of Battle of the Bulge’s delicate minuet.
The epic sensibility also comes from all the players arrayed on stage from the very start. You get these guys, he gets those guys, now unleash hell. There’s none of Battle of Bulge’s incoming traffic management metagame, where you have to know who’s showing up when and where. Whereas the Battle of the Bulge snowballed, Operation Typhoon — the official name of the German drive on Moscow — was a tsunami. The Germans get a powerful early advantage to grab territory, but the Russians can bounce back from staggering losses. Eventually the tables are turned as Germany is ground to a halt by weather and casualties. Then the Russians get a precious few turns to push back before mid-December rolls around and the final score is tallied.
A couple of unique rules add some Eastern Front spice. The Russian cavalry can tromp around with unique sound effects and impunity, gallivanting wherever they want without having to trace a supply line. Russian paratroopers get a once-per-game ability to basically skip over the front lines and land somewhere unexpected. Hey Germany, never assume that you’ve secured Bryansk until Russia has used her paradrop (it would be nice if Shenandoah gave those of us playing multiple games some way to check if the paratroopers have paratrooped yet). During their advantaged stages, each side gets the insidious option for free attacks without any counterattacks, called “prepared offenses”. Or, as they’re known on the receiving end, “ouch”.
The grandest addition to the basic Battle of the Bulge concept is how the map changes with the onset of winter. This is hardcoded to progress like clockwork in every game, which isn’t necessarily a bad idea since it has such a dramatic effect. First comes the mud, then the frost, and finally the winter, each with its own palette shift, each with its own ruleset shift. Anyone who’s played Battle of the Bulge will remember the heaven of being on the defending side of a river and the hell of having to cross one to attack. And of course the effect on movement. There’s nothing like a stupid river to come between your unit and where you want it to go. What a difference it makes when those rivers freeze over and have absolutely no effect on anything. The frost makes forests less defensible. Brittle trees make lousy cover? I’m sure there’s a good reason. But then the partisans come into play during the brutal winter and suddenly forests are of no benefit whatsoever to the Germans. All those infantry besieging Moscow might as well be standing naked in snowy fields.
But what’s to become of all this when there’s no AI to play the game? Even before you learn the system, the AI melts away ineffectually, leaving the road to Moscow wide open. This is a great game to play multiplayer, made effortless with Gamecenter support. But there are literally hundreds of good games I can play multiplayer, dozens upon dozens of which have adequate AI. If Shenandoah is going to present this as a single player game — and they absolutely do — it needs to work as a single player game. As it is, it’s a grand half of a game.
Drive on Moscow
Drive on Moscow, a new strategy game from the award-winning makers of Battle of the Bulge, invites you to take command of the largest battle of World War II. Defend the homeland as the Soviets, or lead a bold push to seize the Russian capital as the Axis. Just make sure you have a human opponent.