On Saturday, November 6th, Next Gen met up with members of the Yale Military History Society for a day of gaming in 28mm. The battle at hand was one of the more bitter moments on the Eastern Front of WW2- Stalingrad. We had 8 players (1 of which was a Wesleyan student who was visiting from his own game club), ranging from freshman to juniors, and two of Next Gen's finest GM's- Roland Fricke and John Manning.
Roland and John arrived fairly early, as they needed to unpack the cars with the help of some of the Yale gamers. I arrived closer to noon, just as everything was being set up. This was a communal effort, and gave us a chance to get to know everyone. While I had met the Yale players earlier last year, this was the first time we could chat in person. They are absolutely wonderful people and gamers!
We briefed the players on the game beginning around 1:00. The Wesleyan student, who was also a former student of mine and a member of our school game club, was the only player who had Bolt Action experience. Thus, Roland and John did a rundown of the scenario, basic rules, and some history of the Stalingrad experience. I chimed in here and there, and did my best to fill in as I saw necessary. The players rolled dice to determine who would play where. They chatted about strategy for a moment or two, and dove into learning the game as turn #1 began.
As an onlooker, I noticed that the players were immediately picking up on key mechanics. While Bolt Action tends to be divisive in the gaming community, I think that it's one of the best decision making games that there is. Each time a dice was pulled, it corresponded to an individual player. They then had to decide on what to do, where, and why. The depth of thinking required by the game is high. Additionally, the GMs added an "end of turn" mechanic. If three of the grey-blue dice came out, it meant the turn would end no matter what was left in the bag. This added some high drama to the game, and forced the players into the dreaded understanding that they wouldn't always get to do what they want.
In terms of game flow, I myself was surprised at how quickly the sides closed with one another. For this particular scenario, the players were gaming on Roland and John's custom Stalingrad terrain, which were mostly scratch built. Each building section was labelled as an objective, which is what the different color chits represent on the table. Unlike most games, which only use 2-3 objective markers, every single building was worth something. This meant that players fought all over the board, instead of huddling into a few spaces. There was much more freedom of movement than in most other scenarios, and every inch of ground mattered, which reflected many of the real life accounts of the battle.
If you've ever played Bolt Action, you know that close assault is the most savage of all actions one can take. Additionally, you know that it's risk and reward, as the winner completely destroys the enemy unit even if the combat is won by a single point. There were more assaults in this game compared with most Bolt Action games I've seen before. Part of it has to do with the nature of the scenario. Stalingrad was, by and large, a street by street battle. Another factor is that the players on the whole were relatively new to miniature gaming, and certainly new to Bolt Action. Thus, many of the players were keen on trying out the tactic. As a teacher, it was fascinating watching the players grapple with math and probability in trying to determine when it was best to assault vs when it was more ideal to shoot. I got to chime in here and there, helping players to think about the odds, and helped them to weight out the best solutions. While many of us game because of the terrain, the painted figures, the camaraderie, and for the love of history/fantasy/science fiction, I always find the decision making/critical thinking component to be nearly as important.
With the game playing out, the Soviets were getting the better of the dice pulls and many of the close assault exchanges. The Germans hunkered down, and did their best to counterattack in certain positions. There were certainly some stand out moments. The Russian right flank stuffed several German assaults, and the players on that side coordinated well with another, managing to cave in their enemy. All the while, they provided sweeping small arms fire into the middle of the table. On the opposite side of the field, German infantry and their Soviet counterparts more or less slaughtered each other to the man. Most notably, units of NKVD stormed German positions, running into a wall of fire. In one of the assaults, both sides were reduced to the point of being destroyed. In the end, German resistance collapsed and by the end of turn 5, the battle was conceded.
As the day wrapped up, we got a chance to debrief some of what the players enjoyed about the game, as well as talk some history. The players really liked how fluid Bolt Action can be, and commended the scenario design as being very clear and balanced. We also talked a bit about Stalingrad itself, emphasizing just how brutal the Eastern Front was, and how it can be differentiated from many of the other fronts in the European theater. The players were engaged and listened intently to the advice, and thoughts of their GMs, while also expressing their own views.
All said, it was a wonderful day. If you've never been there before, Yale has a gorgeous, gorgeous campus. Its buildings are scattered about, and seem to surround a typically New England center green or common. While the players invited us to pizza (a truly kind gesture), I joked that they should go off on their own as they must have had enough dosage of Next Gen for the day! Roland, John and I went off on our own, had dinner locally at Basta (I highly recommend this spot!), and talked about our next steps.
We plan on running another Yale game sometime in January or February. Who knows- maybe we can flip the script and have the players run something as well, given how experienced they are becoming as gamers. To my knowledge, several of them will be attending Historicon in a week, so hopefully they get inspired to take what they are learning from Next Gen and continue to have games at their meetings. Additionally, two of the players will be running games at Historicon in the Next Gen room. Feel free to stop by and say hello if you're attending!
With plans to get to Wesleyan sooner rather than later, it would be awesome to get players from both institutions together for one big gathering. The players seem to have a broad interest in gaming periods, and between all of us on Next Gen, we will more than likely have it covered.
The Next Gen Team!