Demyansk Shield from Legion Wargames is a game that covers a topic that is sparsely modeled in war gaming, at least at this battalion level. Grant conducted an interview with the designer Vance Von Borries earlier this year, which you can read here. I’d recommend giving it a read as he gives some great design insight into Demyansk Shield and can help you understand certain aspects of the game which stand out. The situation however boils down to 70,000 German soldiers having been cut off, are dug in and desperately need relief from the rest of the army group.
For a winter game, whose subtitle is ‘The Frozen Fortress’, the map and game components ares happily colourful. When we unboxed the game I was pleasantly surprised at this – sometimes East Front games can look a bit wanting on the tabletop. The game comes with three scenarios; the full game, from start to finish, or either half of the full game. I appreciate it when games make these provisions, because for some of us sitting down for the amount of time needed to play the entirety of the campaign isn’t always feasible. But splitting the game into the two short scenarios and playing in two sessions (without having to leave it set up for my kids to destroy) makes the product far more attractive to me.
Demyansk Shield is what I would call a traditional hex and counter war game. Obviously it has the hexes and counters, but the mechanics of the game will be very familiar to those that have played a few war games. Grant and I have learned a lot of different games, and a lot of different systems. There’s a ton of creativity right now in the war-gaming world, as designers try to set themselves apart, or model more complex scenarios into a playable format, or just put their take on a battle that has been done many times before (I’m looking at you Bulge!) Sometimes, however, it’s great to play something that already feels like you know it. The rules in Demyansk Shield aren’t ground breaking, but their execution is really fun.
So what do I mean by that? Well, the counters have a standard attack, defense and movement value. You expend movement points (MPs) to move across various terrains. Those terrains can provide defensive benefits. Combat is a die roll on an odds based Combat Results Table. Units have Zones of Control that are sticky, and can stymie fast advances. I mean, that’s the majority of it. Nothing ground breaking, but good, solid, well written rules. The few chrome elements in the game work extremely well, and give you some strategic freedom that feels very thematic and add some fun to the game.
The two main chrome elements are the support assets, and the exploitation movement. Exploitation movement is, as you might expect, the main way you punch through lines and flank enemy units after assault. A unit can be marked for exploitation movement during the move phase, and then after all the attacks are resolved, can move at half their movement (if certain requirements are met.) The halved movement for this exploitation seemed a little slim, as certain units could barely move, but really this is designed for the Panzer units, or mobile ski infantry to shine as they have much higher base movement values.
The support assets are used as column shift modifiers on the CRT. These include things like your offensive, and defensive artillery units, as well as off board air support markers. The Russian player always chooses how many different assets to commit to their current offensive. Say: a single 2 strength Air unit, and two 1 strength artillery pieces for a total of 4 strength. The German then has the option of committing support to the offensive. If the German player did nothing then the Russian would gain two column shifts in their favor during the offensive – which can be deadly. So the German has to either commit nothing, and suffer the shifts, or commit some and reduce the shifts, commit equal amounts of support points to negate the shifts, or commit even more points than the Russian in order to themselves gain the column shifts in their favour.
It might seem like a lot, but it really isn’t. It’s a really quick and clean system for artillery and air support, without the game bogging down in a ton of extra rules. Certain CRT results will force the recipient to ‘lose’ that particular support asset for the rest of the turn. So there is risk in using everything every turn, and your artillery obviously have range considerations, but all in all I really enjoyed that aspect of the game. It reminded me of a similar system used in Unconditional Surrender!, it’s not quite the same but again, a similar feeling.
If I didn’t stress it enough earlier – go and read the interview with Vance Von Borries on this game. Grant and he discussed the CRT itself, which is one of the most critical, and dynamic parts of Demyansk Shield. Dynamic? That’s an odd way to describe an odds based combat table isn’t it? Well, go and play this game and then come back and tell me otherwise. To start with, the actual odds ratios on the table are not necessarily your run of the mill entries that you’d normally expect to see in a game of this type. The most glaring of which is the 5-2 odds column. I’ve played plenty of wargames, but I’ve never seen a 5-2 odds column before. What a curious column. But it works, you have to get up until 8-1 odds as an attacker to guarantee no bad results. 8-1! Let that sink in. This game is bloody as hell. The combat is dogged, attritional, and extremely violent.
Typically it’s hard to get up into the more favourable odds, so that’s why those column shifts from the support assets can be really helpful. But understand that if you’re attacking with 2-1 odds (in any other game this would be a gimmie) there’s a 50% chance that something bad will happen to you, either losses from attrition, or your support assets are exhausted. In that way it keeps the decision making, and strategic play of the game dynamic. A 3-1 odds combat, can sometimes be something you shy away from!
Whilst playing the game, I was having a total blast. The rules are easy enough to pick up and the game is always engaging, there’s constantly strategy to think about and stacks of units to reassess. But for the longest time I couldn’t put my finger on what it was about this game that was so compelling. And now, weeks later it finally hit me. The sheer brutality of the combat reminded me of playing US Civil War games, where bodies were thrown into meat grinders. I’ll come back to that number, of 8-1 odds. That’s what you really need to ensure you won’t take any negative effects in combat. When you have equal strength armies meeting the effects will almost always be bad, which for me always hurt the aggressor more than the defender, as the onus is on the aggressor to pile up the victories in battle in order to forge a path to victory.
And this feels so good. It’s such a different feeling in a war game. Plenty of games you can get decent odds and then just wipe out a stack of two opposing units and blitzkrieg onward. With the CRT how it is and the weather, that’s just so hard to do! The best part is that this does not feel like constraints. I never felt handcuffed by stifling conditions. I actually felt very free strategically as a result of the simplicity of the rules but the tactical aspect of the assaults can be grueling to decide, in the best way possible.
Wow. Okay, I feel like I may have just gushed about Demyansk Shield. Honestly, the more I think about it the more I like this game. Because the campaign is a fairly unique situation you might not play this 50 times, but then be honest with yourself, you wont play any of your operational games that many times in your life. So for what you get in this box – a ton of counters, a great looking wintry map, an odd and unique CRT and a fantastic game – I’d highly recommend this one. I personally really like this scale for East Front games, because the strategic level games are just too predictable and scripted, and whilst this game tells a story too, there’s a much larger canvas (within it’s framework) to play around with on this one.