Battle for Stalingrad house rules

Battle for Stalingrad was published by SPI in 1980.  Designed by John Hill, a master game designer, it is a classic game covering the grand tactical fight for the city itself and its immediate surroundings.  Where many larger scale games focus on the whole campaign leading to the fight for the city, and others focus on the eventual Russian counterattack that famously trapped the German Sixth Army in a pocket around the city and forced its surrender, this game is instead about the block to block fight from September to late November that raged within the Stalingrad urban area.

The units in the game are mostly battalions, with armor and specialist formations shown at the company level, and higher level artillery units battalion to regiment.  Lower level common artillery formations are incorporated into the unit values of the maneuver units, but there are still a substantial number of the independent and higher types.  Air support is handled abstractly.  Turns are a full week long but feature many operations in sequence, so a lot happens within one of them.  Still, each unit only moves and fights once in the week long turn, though overruns and “breakthrough combats” can allow those fights to continue with a momentum of their own.

A key feature of the whole design is that the treatment of the two sides is completely asymmetric.  The Germans have the initiative, and then can move and fight as much as they want until one of their actions triggers a Soviet “Reaction”.  Each Soviet reaction activates only a limited number of their units, plus arriving reinforcements and units right around a 62nd Army headquarters marker.  After those have acted, initiative returns to the Germans.  When the Germans pass with no more actions to take, the Russians get one final, larger reaction at the end of the turn, as well as receiving some special weekly reinforcements of militia and tanks produced within the city itself.  At the start of the new turn, Germans get replacements for some units previously lost as well as new arrivals, before beginning their next turn’s operations.

The design brilliantly balances the maneuver superiority of the Germans, along with their very strong firepower arms (artillery and air) outside of the built up city, with a strongly attritionist combat system in which defenders normally fire first and get significant benefits from being in built up terrain.  This has the effect that they will exact a blood price when attacked, regardless of the odds brought to bear upon them.  In other words, someone has to “go first” and “get whacked” whenever you are attacking a center city or fortified terrain hex.

I like this game a lot, but it does have a few quirks that I find need adjusting for it to play out realistically.  These are related to the paralyzed position of most of the Soviet army during most of the clock, since the Germans are always acting first and the Soviets cannot afford to spend their very limited activations on unimportant units in outlying areas.  The game does provide an extra strategy withdrawal phase at the end of the turn that allows Soviet units to move 1/2 their movement allowance as long as they don’t move adjacent to any Germans and get closer to the Volga river, and as long as they are in supply before moving.  But in practice, that rule is not sufficient, and with best German play large Soviet forces can be isolated quickly and left outside the city in what will effectively become a large static prison camp.  So I have long since revised that rule and a few others to allow a much more realistic battle.

The first rule revision is to the withdrawal rule itself.  It is still located in the final Soviet reaction, after all other reacting units have moved and fought.  Then all ready (previously unactivated) Soviet units may move their full movement allowance, provided they (1) don’t move into any German ZOC (they can move next to, or past, German units in terrain that negates ZOCs) and (2) end up closer to the Volga river at the end of their move than where they started.  Crucially, they don’t need to be in supply to make this movement.  This movement never triggers combat, including no German instant counterattacks.

The second rule revision is a drastic change to the out of supply rules.  In the original, units checked supply at each moment, and would e.g. have 1/2 firepower if they had just been surrounded moments before.  This is way too kind to the Germans and to maneuver compared to attrition.  The revision is that units only check supply once at the end of the entire game turn.

Specifically, the Germans check supply as soon as they pass and before the final Soviet Reaction and withdrawal movement above.  Mark as out of supply any German unit that cannot trace supply to a friendly board edge at that moment.  It remains out of supply for the entire following game turn.  The Soviets only check supply after their final reaction and the withdrawal movement phase above.  They must trace to an operating Ferry hex.  Again mark out of supply any Soviet units that cannot so trace, and they remain out of supply the entire following game turn.  Notice that out of supply Soviet units can still move in the following turn’s withdrawal phase, but they cannot move or initiate combat before then.  As in the original rules, out of supply units defend with 1/2 firepower and cannot attack.

Those are the only changes needed to the original rules.  They will still allow the Germans to cut off large Soviet forces northeast of the city in the first week or two, but they will make it advisable for the Germans to dedicate some effort to actually containing that pocket and reducing its defenders.  If they screen them too loosely, the Soviets will be able to trickle back to the city fight, especially if they can mount any sort of relief operation in any of their final reaction phases to puncture the pocket containment lines.  Which it will become worth trying, if the Germans don’t rapidly reduce such pockets outside the city.  In the fight inside the city, meanwhile, cutting off a position will only allow its cheaper capture if some time passes with those forces cut off.  They won’t instantly lose their ability to defend themselves as soon as one unit gets behind them.