I knew this tin hat would not fit…just look at it…it spins on my top-knot every time I move my head…and running…well it just slips over my eyes and all the way down to my knees. This does not make for an easy toilet break in the wood. Bears may find it easy to do such business in the woods but a soldier such as my self…well…my long-johns don’t even have a buttoning hatch at the back, for one thing.
Press play for a traditional Estonian tune.
or press here for a “more field of combat’” ambience…but please keep your head dow whilst reading for fear of a stray bullet (I will point out at this juncture that keen listeners will probably identify some weapon sounds not bearing a 100% authenticity of the 1900’s but, hey, all is fair in love and war)
Ha! 16th November 1918… and… Good riddance to the Imperial German Army… and thanks for handing over political power to the Estonian Provisional Government… but what’s all this?…it’s only 28th November 1918 and the bloody Russian Read Army’s 6th Red Rifle division are attacking Narva…
…out of one fire and into another even firy-er fire …looks like we will have to be resigned to the fact that there is an ensuing Estonian War of Independence…
What’s All The Fuss About?
A rather understated wargame set in a turbulent part of Estonia’s history…the time independence was fought for in 1918 against an oppressive Russian rule. This is a block and hex wargame for two players…so why on earth feature it on BSoMT? Well, designer Aigar is currently battling his way through the complexities of developing a set of solo rules for a game of hidden objectives, hidden placement and area control. The progress will, of course, be brought to you as it develops. In the meantime I shall endeavour to share how this plays for two players… and if it is, in fact, worth developing into a solo war game at all.
Immersion or Subversion?
It has to be said that a wargame, even one with beautiful sculptured miniatures, will have an element of abstraction about it. As such, it could be argued that any war game could not be a truly immersive experience… however, I feel I must counter argue that point. There are a significant number of small elements/mechanics that come together to recreate a combat simulation with a surprising degree of realism to support my case with Death on the Rails. I will touch on some of these below including movement, combat and the use of blocks all represent but a smattering of the various complexities facing forces in both this game and in the real field of conflict.
This is a surprisingly simple game but hidden beneath the facade are some rather appealing mechanics that make this a pleasure to play. I don’t wish to bore anyone with the entire wheres and why-fors so I shall, instead, pick the elements I find most appealing to share with you…mind you, the list is still quite extensive
- Movement: Movement is simple. A unit can move from one area to another during each move action… but as the board is divided into hexes, how does that work, I hear you asking in an unceremoniously disgruntled fashion. Areas are actually single or multiple hexes. Usually thick vegetation, trees and the like are represented by a single hex where as clear open ground could be three hexes linked with a common border. So movement on terrain needs no further modifiers…if in wooded areas, a unit is limited to the wooded hex it stumbles into, where as a unit sprinting across open ground may pass from a three-hex area to another three-hex area, realistically covering more ground…but obviously leaving said unit open to be fired upon from opponents. The hexes are also large…very large, so there is not the sorts of complication found in other titles where stacking units has to be a huge tower of tokens or square tokens that overlap the hex making adjacent units misalign with each other. Simple, straight forward and also indicative of a more skirmish-sized conflict (but a unit block is not a single troop so this is by no means a one for one skirmish game)
- Line of sight: A node system has been used to aid line of sight. A dot located in the centre of each hex is used to establish line of sight. A straight line from point to point accurately established contact and does away with any ambiguity. It is also important to note that these nodes are also indicators used when establishing stacking of units. As mentioned in movement, areas can be from one to three hexes in size. Counting the dots within an area quickly indicates the stacking limits imposed for that area.
- Combat System: Possibly the simplest but most realistic mechanic in the game, from my perspective, is the way in which combat has been handled. The number upmost on a Units face is the number of dice to be rolled both for offensive and defensive operations… both sides roll their respective dice and sort them into ascending numerical order. Then both sides compare their results. Highest pip count from each side compares to highest pip count. If, for example, we have a (5) and our opponent’s highest die is a (4) then there is one win to us. We work our way down the descending value die until all are compared (no dice present equates to a zero score) and so which ever side finishes with the highest number of victories becomes the combat winner. The loser then takes a step loss to their participating unit. Support units can help alter the value of low pipped die but the nice feature is that all the dice are like a series of fire exchanges and during a single battle the end result is just a single step loss to the wooden block. In reality many men may have been injured or killed but a unit would remain intact, just being less effective or strong for future engagements. And so it is with the block units in the game. Unlike some wargames where tokens are very quickly diminished and removed, there is a greater longevity to troops and their engagement. For me this gives a great scale to conflict. A big dice-fest battle but the end result is just a weakening of oppositio’s units and truly creates a wonderful feeling of engagement without fear of “the luck of the roll” overly affecting the outcome.
- Hidden Objectives: A card is drawn and, dependant on the scenario, numbers are allocated in secret to each side referencing the Objective tokens on the board ( be it a building to occupy or wood to chop down or latrine hole to dig and fill up…or any manner of made up reasons to get to the specified token) During gameplay this lends to a significant and intense levels of bluffing and double bluffing and double, triple bluffing…. especially as both sides in many of the included scenarios have blocks with a [?] on them, which I would assume represent non-military, ancillary or non-combative units. As with a real conflict, trying to second guess the opponent becomes a key element of ones own strategy.
- Hidden Deployment: Nothing ground breaking here but as the blocks are stickered on only one side and often, when a [?] is present, set up can, in actual fact, throw an opponent of the scent, as it were. A war becomes a clever game of bluffing to out psych an opponent.
- Hidden Action Points: Planning our actions is all well and good when we know just how many we have during a turn to achieve a certain goal but when we don’t know how many we have at our disposal, life becomes a little more complex. The opponent turns over the top action card and keeps the action (red) number secret. The active player, us in this case, will carry out an action (be it a move or shoot or what ever) then our opponent will indicate if we have another action point available…and so we continue using action points until the number on the card is reached. At this point we end our turn but may, at this point, have failed to achieve as much as we really wanted to achieve. as in real conflict situations, we can plan in advance but unforeseen circumstances can hinder our progress and this is nicely replicated by hidden action points.
- Initiative & Action points: leading on from the action points, the Initiative track plays a significant role in the to-and-fro of war. let’s say we start a turn on the (2) initiative square. if we use (3) Action points, this will move from (2) initiative on our side to the (1) initiative space on the opponent’s side and the Active player role is swapped. However, if we were, say, on initiative space (3) and were unfortunate enough to only have (2) action points…well the Initiative wold move towards the opponent but still be on our side (n the (1) space. As we end our turn with the Initiative still in our favour, joy of all joys, we get to have a second Action card drawn for us..which is not to shabby at all. GREAT for us as we could end up with (5) or more actions…and the need to think quickly to wisely utilise the extra actions. In a similar fashion, there is a Reactive Fire that can be taken by an opponent at our moving troops. why do they get a fee shoot?…hah, well, it is not so simple. If the opponent does use Reactive Fire, the initiative track is moved in our favour thus adding to the potential of us being able to draw a second Action card. This significantly influences the
Wood Chits and Cardboard Bits:
The illustrations on the maps, tokens, box and action cards are a delight to behold..or at least greatly appeal to my tastes. The blocks are well finished but have rather plain stickers that require attaching. That said, they are functional with an easily identifiable Unit Type icon and easily readable statistics….very simple statistics.
(using one number to represent attack and defence die numbers), which make at a quick glance a simple task to know what is going on. This obviously speeds up play and reduce ambiguities found with a multitude of stats often found in a very small space on more complex unit tiles.
There are four double-sided map boards which makes for each scenario having a completely different terrain feel. This is a nice touch as different scenarios will call for us to use surrounding terrain features in differing ways. As we would expect real troops to do in the field.
The only item that I find a little odd is the train token. It doesn’t alter play and is only a representational placeholder token, not a scale model, so I suppose I shouldn’t think of it in a negative way.
Meeples & Standees:
- Game Design:Aigar Alaveer, Martti Lauri
- Artist:Kaisa Holsting
- Game Publisher:EE Games
- Playtime (recess for those of a US persuasion):60-120 mins
- Gangs of one:2
- Age of Consent:14+
As it stands death on the Rails is not so suited to solitaire play, particularly as hidden setup and hidden win objectives are both principle features of the gameplay, nicely replicating the uncertainty of conflict on the ground in less than hospitable surroundings. However do not give up. All is not lost. Aigar is currently working on a set of solitaire rules that, if all go according to plan, will make this excellent wargame accessible to the soloist player. I shall be sure to bring further developments to your attention in a Bots n Wotnots article as and when the AI rule set becomes public knowledge.
Edit: I have now in my possession an early draft of the solo rules with the first solo scenario…writted with words and similar on authentic 1918 replica paper. So, testing of the solitary rules has begun…they exist and, if my first couple of games are anything to go by, they will soon become a reality opening up the Estonian War of Independence to soloists everywhere… more on how it plays soon!…but as an early spoiler things are looking very promising with the possibility of additional scenarios dedicated to solitaire play. Exciting times ahead, me thinks.
- Winners and Losers: Skill, a small amount of luck and bluffing will be high on the list that determines how well we succeed, how close we come to victory. As each scenario has a number of win conditions for each side, tactical decisions are required right from the first turn of the action deck. As a two player game this is what governs ease of victory. As the solo mode is still in development I shall hold of reporting on ease of solo victory until such time as I have had opportunity to test the solitaire game out.
- Rules is Rules is Rules: Here, I have to say, I think Aigar has been let down to a small degree here. The rules themselves are relatively straight forward and it is possible to work our way through to gain an understand what is required of us as a player from the current rule book, but so many errors, silly errors with grammar and certain ways the phrasing of instructions has been dealt with just feel awkward. These should, I think, have been picked up by those employed to proofread the translation from the original Estonian. There is a live on-line rule book which I assume will be modified accordingly in due time, so all is not lost. On a personal note I feel a really good game has been a little let down by this document.
- Lucky Buggers: Combat is dealt with using our favourite spotted cube friends and as such it is inevitable that luck will feature heavily in conflict. There is, however a couple of redeeming features to this game and the handling of luck. There are ways for us to stack the odds in our favour through use of cunning and tactical positioning….in that we can draw upon supporting units and choose where and when we engage our enemy. But this is small change in the grand scheme of things. All war is fraught with unforeseen circumstances and so the random nature of dice throwing replicates this nicely. For me, it is the holistic approach to combat that make this an interesting game, making greater sense of large combat situations replicated by a token or block than some more elaborate games do. As mentioned above in Mechanical Attributes, the way an engagement is dealt with that make a combat round more realistic whilst still having a slight abstract dice throwing feel. It is not a dice fest swamped with modifiers. It is simple rolling of a small number of dice and comparing results to those of the opponent…what ever the outcome from a fist full of dice, the defender, if not victorious only loses one step from the unit so even the worst roll in the history of human conflict affects just a single step loss. So, yes, luck plays it’s part but it is not a crushing blow dealt to us by those for whom the gods of die smile down on favourably.
- Highs and Lows: I imagine the turbulent past of this period of Estonian history, with Russian and German oppressors at varying points, the reality of a War of Independence must be pretty dire to experience but from a gaming perspective, the abstracted nature of the game allows us a certain buffer from reality. No wargame can be taken lightly but as this focuses on concealed identity and abstracted movement, combat and objective taking, players can indulge in a game of tactics without building too strong an attachment to individual pieces.
- Footprints All Over Both Sides of My Table: There are numerous scenarios included within the game, some using a single board whilst others require two game boards but as an overall layout, a small table space of 50cm x 60cm should suffice allowing a big wargame feel but with a surprisingly small footprint…this is the table in my caravan, just to put it in perspective.
- Build It Up Just To Knock It All Down: Each Scenario uses differing combinations of wooden blocks and map boards so, as would be expected, some time identifying components and populating the set up zones does consume a fair amount of set up time. The only other components are the action card deck, initiative track and action/artillery tokens. The relatively small volume of components means that even with scenario specific units, probably not mor than ten minutes is required…and significantly less to pack away. All in all a quick set up and teardown in comparison to many wargames.
Me, Myself and I:
Yay or Nay: As it stands Death on the Rails would not score favourable for a solo game but I am going to hold off scoring until the solo rules have been thoroughly explored on BSoMT. That said, I do feel this is an excellent lighter weight wargame for two and definitely recommend it. I suspect it will gain labels such as “gateway wargam” because of its size and simplicity, which is ok by me, but I really do feel the clever mechanics, movement, maps, line of sight and especially the combat system make for a challenging, fun, high intensity tactical game. There is so much more than move and shoot. Positioning, support, use of open/covered terrain, the hidden action points mechanic, hidden objectives and the very well thought out combat system warrant a game of deep tactical play.
Yay or Nay?
Until the solo rules have been tested I shall withhold the rolling of the BSoMT1d8 die as the game is obviously not suitable for solo play as it stands. That said, this really is an engaging and tense wargame that feels quite different to many more traditional titles on the market. I highly recommend giving it a try (with more than one scenario if possible as they all play quite differently to each other)
Early playtesting of the draft solo rules suggest that this could well be fighting its way to a very high BSoMT 1d8 die roll.
Ok. Communal hole dug. Communal hole well and truly filled. Now to vacate the area. This is one location not to be in once artillery fire starts to land.
Now where was that objective?
Onwards….oh, curs you, you stupid tin had. I knew cutting arm holes in it would have been a good idea!
Something Fo The Weekend, Sir?
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