City of Bones – An Undaunted: Stalingrad Review

Undaunted: Stalingrad is a powerful experience. It takes Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson’s acclaimed system and marries it to a campaign format that is engrossing and transcendent. The battle of Stalingrad is captured with such purpose and intimacy that I felt as if I was wandering through an HBO miniseries immersed in dramatic action.

I’ve spent 15 hours with my head down, fighting block by block through this city while shattering concrete and flesh. I’ve spent even more time in the quiet hours thinking about it. I don’t know if this is the best World War Two game ever designed, but I don’t know that it isn’t.

I’m not much of a fan of deck-builders. I’ve played Dominion close to a thousand times and I’ve played most of the spin-offs. I’ve felt done with the genre for years now. Then something like this comes along.

I enjoyed my first few plays of Stalingrad so thoroughly that I sought out more. That is, in the middle of a 15-scenario campaign, I diverted my attention to trying out Undaunted: Normandy. I needed to contextualize my experience with this particular iteration and work out some thoughts on the system. Campaign or not, Undaunted as a framework is a strong offering.

Here’s the thing, it’s not deck-building in the traditional sense. While each player has a market of cards they can acquire, you’re not exactly constructing an engine with a predictable and well-defined arc. Your deck grows and shrinks erratically, producing an ebb and flow that broadly abstracts morale, casualties, fog of war, and command. I don’t find myself impatiently waiting to draw into a perfectly built combo, instead I struggle to meld a tactical approach with strategic vision. It’s about timing and seizing opportunity. Everything is a trade-off, from sacrificing strong cards for initiative to thinning your deck for increased effectiveness. Cards seemingly tumble out chaotically yet with purpose, and it’s up to you to shape your hand into a meaningful turn.

Some take issue with the dice rolling. I can understand this concern although I don’t identify with it. The random element in attacking affords an additional layer of gambling, forcing you through difficult decisions concerning maneuvering and cover. It greatly enhances the connection to the environment, establishing a sense of presence with tendrils of narrative. I do admit it feels crude at times as it’s simplistic in a way that feels small or unconsidered, in direct opposition to the elegant structure of the card play.

The casualty mechanism is the original Undaunted’s most significant shortcoming. Combat losses are reflected with the removal of a unit’s card from your deck. So, if your ‘A’ rifleman squad takes a hit, you pluck that card out of your hand – or deck or discard – and toss it aside for the rest of the session. This is certainly impactful as it can directly cause a loss of activation on your next turn, but it also creates a delayed outcome of reducing the unit’s overall effectiveness over time. It’s a smart design element, but it doesn’t quite feel right. The impact is sheltered from immediate view as the unit’s status doesn’t change on the map itself. This means it comes across less as disruption or loss of life, and instead like soft blows of unperceived trauma.

This is Undaunted: Stalingrad’s greatest trick. It makes you care.

At the end of every battle, you shuffle up those casualty cards and hold your breath. Depending on how many losses were suffered, you draw one or more cards from this deck of Schrodinger’s infantry. The soldiers you touch are permanently slain and tossed in the box to lie in an unmarked grave. Dmitri Abramov, decorated machine gunner who single-handedly took the Northern Square? He’s gone. For. Ev. Ver. says Squints.

The loss is partially mitigated when it’s your core riflemen, scouts, or machine gunners. Replacements arrive – troopers with weakened stat-lines and artwork that illustrates headwounds or a lack of quality gear. They’re not as effective, but at least they’re ready to serve. That safety netting doesn’t exist with other units. The campaign is chock-full of specialists and various types of combatants. You get things you’d expect, but you also get some you won’t. Hitting a branch in the campaign and being awarded a fresh new set of toys is a spectacular feeling – particularly in how it creates asymmetry and distinct campaign narratives – but it stabs you in the belly just as hard when you lose one of those soldiers and can’t replace them. In fact, it adds an entirely new texture to deckbuilding as you may forego bringing in a strong unit you don’t want to risk losing.

Unfortunately, this system is imperfect. There are certain thresholds of deaths suffered which kick you into another bracket of card loss. For instance, if four casualties are inflicted upon your units during play, you only lose a single card permanently. But if you suffer five or more casualties, then you must permanently toss two cards from your losses pile. It incentivizes a gamey awareness of your current death toll and can divert attention from a narrative stance into a cold procedural one. Much of the campaign system does wonders to obfuscate the mechanical gears of play, but this important focus on casualties subverts those accomplishments at times. This is in fact my largest issue with Stalingrad.

Despite that spasm, all of this provides a tremendous tension that simply doesn’t exist in standard Undaunted. It’s a driving force behind the extended experience and partially responsible for the game’s brilliance. Thompson and Benjamin offer a release valve, however, by allowing you to retreat. Instead of taking your turn, you can call it quits and immediately capitulate. You lose, but you stop the bleeding. This completely changes the dynamic of play. It forces you to consider the permanence of unit loss and attaches an emotional connection to the lives of these men and women.

I forfeited one scenario five minutes in. It was a decisive moment and the affective connection between myself and the game was absolute.

But it was also a problem. I adore this casualty system and think it’s the primary achievement of the campaign framework, but taking the time to setup the tiles, objectives, and units, only to sweep it all off the table a moment later, it’s a bummer. I’ll pay that occasional cost, however, as the impact is formidable.

This also highlights that scenario design is not always sterling. I’m impressed with the variety and care that is ever present throughout the campaign, but we did run into an occasional dud. It’s difficult to ascertain whether poor play led to such a lopsided outcome, but the structure of fresh scenarios with each session doesn’t allow for the sort of analysis that would come to a definite conclusion. Again, while the game wasn’t perfect in this regard, the overall design was strong enough that the blemishes were slight and easily forgiven. There are so many intelligent decisions and clever turns around every corner that Stalingrad makes it quite easy to embrace it charitably and overlook the small stuff.

One of those clever turns, and the second impressive achievement of the campaign system, is the personality imbued in the setting. I’m not talking about the moderate quantity of script that precedes each scenario and offers context to the battles. That stuff is adequate military fiction that doesn’t quite standout. What I’m talking about is in how the mechanisms afford a charisma to the city of Stalingrad.

Yeah, the tiles are dark and moody. It can be difficult to visually identify key places of interest as everything is brown and gray. But precious buildings are shelled and defaced over the course of the campaign. They actually degrade mechanically as cover is whittled away and tiles swapped for ones that display the scars. The first time I demolished a building and then later found myself having to defend the smoking rubble – I was battered.

This continues as you fortify positions and ruin others. Every time we shattered a structure, we flipped the tile over and read the provided snippet of text that described the location and its importance. Losing Pavlov’s House was like losing a good friend.

Undaunted: Stalingrad pulls another little clap on the jaw by identifying the larger area of Stalingrad as expressed in the game’s layout of tile locations. Every battle is a slice of the larger whole, and it shows you with a little graphic which part of the city you’re rolling over. You could assemble the entire metropolitan area with all of the tiles if you had a big enough table. It’s a breathtaking endeavor and I heartily recommend you do this at the conclusion of your campaign. This is absolutely a small touch, but it was incredibly effective in enhancing my connection to the setting and expanding upon the character of what we were fighting over.

It’s astonishing to me how the layers of additional systems never topple it all. Branching scenarios, rolling content, permanent casualties, and an evolving board never stray from the restrained design principles of the core game. There are many paths and even wholesale units you will never see in a particular campaign play. Some scenarios have hidden information and huge dramatic surprises that are hidden from one side. It all feels well-honed as if the designers are in complete control of their work. It comes across a natural evolution.

Undaunted: Stalingrad is a feat of strength. It hits hard by establishing a connection to its actors and setting before stealing them from your grasp. The intrinsic themes in the subject of war have never been more cogent in board game design. There’s a pervasive futility present as you trade key positions, seeing areas such as 9 January Square taken and lost in perpetuity. After the 15th scenario has ended all you’re left to do is pick up the pieces. Breaking down the swollen casualty decks and returning all of the crippled buildings to their original stack is sobering. Best World War Two game ever designed? It may just be.

 

A review copy of the game was provided by the publisher.

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  2 comments for “City of Bones – An Undaunted: Stalingrad Review

  1. Steve
    December 30, 2022 at 1:29 pm

    I don’t often say this as I’m hesitant to recommend pretty big iffy complex diamonds in the rough in the “not for everyone” category… But based on your review, you NEED to play GMT’s Fields of Fire when they release the new box (or buy an old copy 2nd ed and download the new rules). It is much less abstract and does something similar to this 1p and avoids most of the criticisms you have here, while maintaining the heartbreak of “old friend” platoon or leader losses. It also does that thing where you know you’re tossing units into unwinnable situations to save the squad and it’s pretty agonizing and will also hurt you next scenario.

    You’re one of the few people who I don’t think would be dissuaded by the LONG but now coherent rulebook so I think I can recommend.

    Liked by 2 people

    • December 30, 2022 at 1:49 pm

      I actually have it on my list, Steve. I was waiting for it to stabilize with newer editions. Will need to place a higher priority on it. Thanks for the recommendation!

      Liked by 1 person

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