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  • Keith

Revisiting No Retreat: The Russian Front

Some games are a flash in the pan. They are exciting, new and give you a rush, but lose their luster over time. Then there are the classics, those games you come back to repeatedly only to find nuance you hadn’t noticed or find comfort in a solidly built game that reminds you what wargaming is all about. A game that falls solidly into the latter category is No Retreat: The Russian Front.

Originally released by Victory Point Games this title was given the deluxe treatment by GMT Games and subsequently released in the “2nd Edition” format that cleans up rules and addresses some the vagaries from the initial version. I am only familiar with the game in both GMT releases. As a result, I am spoiled by the incredible production of one of the best low-complexity eastern front titles ever released.

A Ballet with a CRT

Make no mistake, the low rules density matches the low counter density, but as every player soon discovers into the first few turns of their game…No Retreat: The Russian Front is a demanding game that plays like a complicated ballet. Assembling a coherent defense with brittle Russian units that don’t really come into their own until later in the game against the punishing onslaught of panzers and mechanized infantry the German throw at the Russians for the first two years of the war is intimidating. For the Germans, the problem is overcoming the scarcity of units to keep the drive alive while not giving up the flanks to allow Russian units to sneak behind the lines in order to cut the lengthy supply lines back to Greater Germany.

Casual Players Excel

The other observation about this game is that casual players can quickly excel at this game. The strategy quickly emerges because the rules “get out of the way” within the first few turns. Add to this, the punishing outcomes of bad decisions and it leaves even casual players with a desire to reset the board and try again. Getting a wargamer engaged enough to demand an instant restart to a game is no easy task. Often, wargames can be mentally exhausting in the best possible way.

The other great thing about No Retreat: The Russian Front is that it allows for some of the soft-skills that make face-to-face play enticing. One of the things that I’ve just accepted as a part of wargaming is diving into rulebooks during the game in order to look up a rule or an edge case. That can get in the way of a great conversation. Again, No Retreat: The Russian Front does a superb job of making the time around the game table a lively game and conversation.

Design is a Razor’s Edge

As designer Richard Seymour (of Seymour Powell) says, “Design is removing the irrelevant.” That’s a delicate act! Any game could just be reduced to a die roll with some historical modifiers for an outcome by removing everything. It’s the act of an incredible designer to balance keeping everything the game needs, without keeping a single irrelevant thing. Carl Paradis has achieved this rare goal with No Retreat: The Russian Front. It offers a robust Russian Front experience without anything unnecessary to achieve that goal.

A few of the crowning achievements include:

  1. Rail movement without railroad tracks on the board

  2. Russian conscript replacement

  3. Effects of the Russian Winter

  4. Intangible advantages of equipment and doctrine shifting across the 4 years of the conflict

  5. Supply that can be reviewed at a glance in almost every situation

  6. Luftwaffe support

Things that are emergent include the use of satellite armies like the Romanian, Hungarian, and Italian forces who need to be cared for properly since they fill an odd niche. The satellite armies aren’t strong enough to operate alone, but can help push you up the odds column or can help hold a ZOC linked line. They’re even competent early on holding onto captured cities for the Germans. As a result, players get a chance to explore the various ways to employ these armies which seems to evolve over the course of the game.

The Russians Evolve…Almost Chromeless

The overarching story of the Russian front is always one of the hapless Russian army getting blindsided following the purge of its best leaders. Over the course of a 14 months, they manage bring the industrial and population might to bear against an increasingly fractured and unfocused German invader. By 1943, the tide is solidly turning and those Russian soldiers who needed Commissars to keep the men on the line are now full fledged Russian bears on the hunt. There were almost innumerable ways to explore this. Changing the CRT, swapping out units, providing a column shift, swapping out the deck by era, or providing a year-by-year change to each Russian unit’s stats.

No Retreat: The Russian Front is far more elegant in its approach. Instead, the Russian player slowly upgrades additional units in a progressive series of changes that the German player simply cannot keep up with over time. This has the added benefit of not using cards for the most part (unless the Russian player wants to accelerate this process) and it puts the German player into the state of mind of the German commanders who were suddenly outclassed over a massive series of fronts. The change in the game features both the psychological and statistical changes in a nearly seamless way. While there are special rules to contend with on turn 12, overall the core mechanics are left alone. Since there are few mechanics to begin with, this reinforces my earlier point that the rules get out of the way of the game quickly.

The perfect teaching game

I’ve gilded the lily long enough and it’s time for my final thought.

A lot of time is put into recruiting new wargamers. This is a TOUGH sell. Admittedly, there are a lot of curious boardgamers, particularly who like heavier Eurogames that find the historical focus of wargames appealing. Unfortunately, the length of rules, complicated military vernacular, and two-player count coupled with often 3+ hour play times for even lighter wargames can make recruitment a difficult task. There are now far more games that fill the “teaching” or “introductory” wargame niche.

I contend, however, that No Retreat provides players with a far more accurate representation of the hobby than many other games. While games like Twilight Struggle, COIN series releases, or even lighter releases like W1815, 1775 Rebellion – The American Revolution, or Washington’s War don’t provide a more traditional look at hex & counter wargaming. This doesn’t diminish these excellent games. In fact, it may help sustain new wargamers over the hump. Let’s look at 10 reasons why…

  1. The game is hex & counter and features nearly all of the core concepts of traditional wargames.

  2. The rulebook is light, well written, and there are plenty of videos / player aids available to assist a new wargamer.

  3. The game features a lot of on-map “symbols” that helps players learn the game and remember the rules (very Euro-like).

  4. The game has plenty of scenarios with shorter playing times.

  5. The components are solidly made, easy to read and handle.

  6. The game is well liked by first timers and by veteran wargamers.

  7. The game is the first in a series, and while the other games introduce significantly more complex systems, there’s room to grow into them.

  8. The price-point, when in print is not outrageous.

  9. There is a superb VASSAL module for players who want to try it out digitally if no willing wargamers live nearby.

  10. The game is just plain fun.

As much as anyone might write about this game…that it’s fun often gets left aside to focus on the details. Instead, let me just close out by re-affirming that No Retreat: The Russian Front is one of the most fun wargames to throw on the table ever made. It is a classic for all of the erudite design reasons you can break down from it, but in the end…if a game isn’t fun…why bother?

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