Russian Frontl from Hunted Cow

The Review of Lock’n’Load: Heroes of Stalingrad

SPLASH-hos

Our own Undercovergeek marches into Stalingrad, and comes out with this review of the action.

Lucky 13 April, 2014

I’m a terrible German officer, but that’s ok, I’m a terrible Russian officer as well.

It’s a testimony to Lock & Load’s Heroes of Stalingrad that it has been able to teach me that. As my numerous attempts at claiming or defending small patches of land surrounding Stalingrad mounted up, it occurred to me that neither Stalin or Hitler had made the right choice in putting me in charge. Either that or this game has a much more devious AI than I bargained for, or I’m just crap at throwing digital dice.

Pavlov and his team unwisely leave the safety of their house to assault a flamethrower unit

Pavlov and his team unwisely leave the safety of their house to assault a flamethrower unit

Heroes of Stalingrad first appeared on my radar after getting lost in a Matrix Games forum a long time ago. I should be honest at this point and say I have never played a Lock & Load board game, never played Advanced Squad Leader, and never actually played a WWII themed board game at all. But I have played Blood Royale with a tricorn hat on, because I thought it was the same as Napoleons.

However, I was there at Bastogne commanding the Commodore 64’s finest in Battle of the Bulge, I was there on the fields of Gettyburg in North and South, all the way through to the first Combat Mission and up to and including Market Garden, where it’s safe to say that Frost and Urquhart are also probably thinking about removing my commission. When it comes to losing my men of the digital variety, I’m confident in my CV. So when I first saw the screen shots of small, squad based battles in and around the familiar railway yards and factory buildings, and extra immersion created by having my own set of officers and heroes, I was delighted to have found my next set of pixeltruppen to throw hopelessly into the mincer of battle.

For me personally Heroes bears a great amount of responsibility. It is my great hope of board game to PC game crossover.  I see them in there, through their game’s club windows, laughing and joking, throwing their dice and clapping each other on the back with their ‘board game players’ camaraderie, telling stories of great triumphs and tragedies. Then they turn and point at the lonely, sad faced PC wargamer outside who can never know what it feels like to hold the counters, set up the board, smell the cards and feel the rattle of dice, and rub their victim’s face in the agony of a successful ambush. I want all these things dammit, and it’s maybe not fair to expect this of Heroes, but it does not falter under the weight of my expectation.

Heroes of Stalingrad focuses on small, personal skirmishes encountered during the Battle of Stalingrad. The intimate settings necessitate a good deal of finesse in ordering units and squads around that the tactical player will revel in. The map could be a simple village or an important crossroads or other close quarter environment consisting of three or four infantry sections with some leaders and support teams, sometimes backed by tanks or other AFVs Continuity is provided by the persistence of a core of soldiers. These units gain points by surviving campaign scenarios and destroying enemies, points are reinvested in various improvements such as increased range, strength, or leadership , hardening armour, extra offense opportunities and adding a weapon or special skill.

The infamous girl, your success relies on her safety

The infamous girl, your success relies on her safety

Immersion is enhanced by the inclusion of narrative elements using hand drawn pop-ups which dramatize the confrontation and offer choices to the player. The impact of these stories is not always good for gameplay. For example, early in the German campaign you need to protect a child who is caught in the crossfire between you and the Russian AI. If she is hit the battle ends in defeat. Others range from rallying cries, to the emotive images of loved ones at home, they add a very emotional and immersive quality to the scenarios. Whilst the denizens of the wargaming club maybe more focused on the adventures of their units, it is always a good thing to see a human element introduced into games. It draws the player into the conflict and adds context to the game’s story.

As well as the main campaign there are liberal sprinkling of scenarios. These range from the simple to the quite complicated. The difficulty level and sneakiness of the AI was pleasingly surprising in each scenario – it is sometimes not for the feint hearted. Each scenario demands a good deal of thought and deliberation, this is no ‘throw all your troops at the enemy in a hope to overwhelm them’ engine. I had a wry smile to myself at being “pinned” by the enemy, the AI makes you think about your next move, makes you construct an effective plan, when that plan comes off there is internal rejoicing and fist pumping, the extent to which an outside observer would never understand.

A selection of the scenarios available

A selection of the scenarios available

I found myself leading small pockets of (some say scouts, I say victims) to draw enemy fire while my other elements flanked these now revealed ambushes. Tactics at last! This then is no turn based Command and Conquer, it is a game for thinkers and planners that elevates the game beyond most of this type. Fear not the newbie and the newcomer though, not at all, with a little hard work and perseverance the game can become a very immersive and rewarding experience. The player new or old has definitely entered the world of ‘just one more go’, many hours will be lost through the night and I suspect a few surprising dawns will catch gamers by surprise. In short, the campaign is for the long run, the scenarios are excellent quick dips in and out of the game to hone your tactical skills – its so easy to just jump into a scenario, but beware the time trap!

Doing some hardcore, dedicated researcher kind of work for the benefit of the Lock ‘n’ Load boardgame veterans out there, I spoke to a number of people who have played the boardgame and watched a few Lets Play videos. From this I can conclude that the Lock ‘n’ Load mechanics of the cardboard edition have been faithfully adhered to in digital form.

The German player must make tactical decisions as he assaults over a bridge

The German player must make tactical decisions as he assaults over a bridge

Turns are divided into alternating pulses, a player activates one or more units in the same hex and carries out a number of tasks with those units, the opponent then does the same until both players pass. If a player moves a unit, the opponent has the chance to roll for opportunity fire providing LOS and range are all good, leading to some very crafty ambush opportunities.

Shooting is resolved in a number of short steps , normally two for infantry, the first roll to see if the attacker hits, if so an extra roll to determine the damage. It is slightly different for AFVs – they get a roll for every weapon they can bring to bear on the defender, some tanks have their main gun and a number of machine guns to fire!

A defender can also get lucky and raise a hero from the ashes of defeat. When a defending unit rolls for damage, if the right prerequisites are met a hero is created possessing any number of special skills to rally his troops and take the fight to the enemy.

Some of the many upgrades for your heroes and units

Some of the many upgrades for your heroes and units

My favourite been ‘Running Man’ where the hero can enter and leave a hex occupied by enemy troops, emptying his weapons on the way. Once damage has been determined units can become shocked, wounded or have their number reduced due to casualties, or even eliminated. Recovery from these states can only be carried out by the precious and all too rare leader, commisar, hero, and nurse units.

Casting my mind back to the smug gamers in their gaming club rooms, they obviously knew what I didn’t. That it would be impossible to represent the to-ing on fro-ing of battle, and indeed the to-ing and fro-ing of the mechanics of the game via PBEM. My first thoughts were that it would be cool to start a PBEM and get down to some small action skirmishing with international and local foes alike. It’s not a deal breaker but worth mentioning here for those newbies like me that PBEM is not, and cannot be supported.

Assaulting units inside a building is one of the hardest things to do

Assaulting units inside a building is one of the hardest things to do

For people new to Lock ‘n’ Load they need to adapt to some unusual mechanisms (note here unusual does not necessarily mean bad) that regular players and those more familiar with the boardgame will be accustomed to. Firstly, and the one I found hardest to get to grips with – in most wargames the player activates individual units and carries out the actions applicable to that unit. Now in Heroes of Stalingrad the player can enable one or more units in the same hex (complicated further by a character card been able to activate further units in all surrounding hexes), once the player has determined which units are active they perform that action as a group, be that shooting or moving. I say shooting OR moving because you can’t do both unless you elect to carry out an assault, but in doing so your movement capacity is heavily reduced.

Secondly, a shaken unit is extremely vulnerable. They are left with the ability to make small movements away from the enemy but if engaged in melee they are automatically removed, the only way to rescue these poor troops is to have a character card in the hex and roll to see if they can recover, this can be automatically activated at the end of each turn. However if they are separated from their leader they are on their own. Note that AFVs, snipers and gunners (mortars and ATGs) can attempt to rally without help.

The opening scene of the German campaign

The opening scene of the German campaign

Thirdly, once an enemy has moved and finishes its turn, if it doesn’t fire or stand next to one of your units it becomes invisible. You have an opportunity to try and spot the unit but the odds on a successful roll are very low, the only way to reveal this unit after that is to move next to it and trigger a possible deadly ambush. This leads to the need for some clever, tactical decisions to plan a successful attack. Let me give you an example of how this might work – hidden in a forest hex is an enemy unit, it’s the start of my turn and the unit has gone invisible. My brilliant strategic mind under normal circumstances would say ‘hose the woods with heavy machinegun fire to keep the enemy’s head down, approach the woods and kill the enemy unit’. However, indirect or suppressive fire is not possible in ‘Heroes’ and the accepted approach seems to be as follows

  • Approach the enemy unit with a single  (sacrificial lamb) unit until the enemy is forced to fire and reveals itself
  • Target the enemy now with all my available units within range, except one. This has two outcomes, the unit becomes shocked – good, the unit is eliminated, riddled with bullets – better.
  • If the unit is shocked, move the reserve unit you kept into melee with the shocked unit, hey presto.

The only problem here is the removal of immersion and the step away from reality. It leaves you feeling like you’re playing the mechanics of the game and not leading a small platoon of men through a forest hunting a deadly enemy. As I said, even though Stalin or Hitler would not approve of my leadership, even I wouldn’t sacrifice a group of men to reveal an enemy whose exact position I already knew.

A healthy choice of tutorials to introduce the newbie to the game

A healthy choice of tutorials to introduce the newbie to the game

Lastly, the win conditions are a bit grumpy. If you are given five conditions to meet and only make four, you will lose the scenario, no ‘minor victory’, or ‘tactical success’ just ‘defeat’!

The game is an excellent tool for those who want to show off their fancy tactical skills. It demands a lot of planning and forethought. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing this game to chess, but like that game ‘Heroes’ insists that you not only plan out your current move but those moves much further down the line. From the first pulse you need to calculate what units you will need to accomplish a decisive action and respond to any adverse movements from the enemy. You then need to decide what order to do this in to maximise the efficiency of the operation so you can move on to the next. The plan itself needs to be bombproof (pardon the pun). Take for example capturing an occupied building,  it is best done in two stages, firstly a plan of movement to surround the building, then a second round to enter, resolve melee and strengthen it if necessary. Bearing in mind any of those carefully planned movements can quickly come undone by opportunity fire from the enemy, leaving your troops shaken in the middle of the street.

In the end each small victory will be achieved by the player that has invested the most resources to the plan, something in accordance with the laws of war.

‘Heroes’ has a deep and rich system, victory comes to the opponent who understands when to use the right units at the right time, containing the urge to fire where stealth and sneakiness could pay better dividends. I have seen negative comments about the ‘invisible’ units which disappear when out of LOS and then move swiftly amidst your units who fired earlier in the round. Whilst difficult to deal with it serves to teach the player to set his own traps and learn to become a devious tactician! It is surely not an unpleasant attribute of a game to be surprised and outsmarted by the games AI. How many games give you an opportunity to create heroes and dodge and weave amongst your enemies busy unloading your guns on targets?

Whilst discussing the AI, as in most strategy games, the AI serves to teach you the basics of the game before giving you the confidence to take the game out for a real spin with hotseat multiplayer, ably facilitated by the developers server match up system. The AI gives you a very good challenge, I haven’t seen many problems with the AI, maybe a desire to charge into melee on a suicidal impulse, and its biggest fault in the holding of victory points from static locations. The AI will be charged with holding buildings, and indeed ably occupies this buildings making its forces nigh on invincible, needing some serious application of tactics. However, for some reason the AI likes to step out of these safe havens to tackle your forces in the open, but I’m given to understand this problem is being addressed already.

One of the many animated cut scenes to immerse the player in the campaign

One of the many animated cut scenes to immerse the player in the campaign

In conclusion the game is a faithful conversion of the boardgame to computer game. The player needs to familiarise himself with the various oddities of its mechanics to get the best out of the game. The important thing is that it recreates accurately the special atmosphere of the board game and allows me to pull faces at the club gamers behind the window because my PC version is just as good as theirs.

Good:

  • Requires a sound tactical mind that will be challenged, the slightest of mistakes can be punishing
  • The AI will surprise you and can often pull victory from the jaws of defeat
  • Varied and challenging scenarios
  • Immersive atmosphere

Bad:

  • Some immersion breaking mechanics
  • Very unforgiving victory conditions.

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3 Responses to The Review of Lock’n’Load: Heroes of Stalingrad

  1. Jason says:

    If it wasn’t for the spotting mechanic I’d love this game. The spotting mechanic really ruins it for me though sadly.

    I will say though modders have gone to town and created loads and loads of new units and a decent selection of scenarios.

    • Brant Guillory says:

      The spotting mechanic is pretty much a direct replication of the board game mechanic. Mark (the designer) abhors ‘hidden’ units, and that led him to develop the spotting mechanism for the board game. Since the point of the PC game was to play the board game w/ an AI, it’s not a surprise that the spotting mechanism was included. Just because you ‘know’ something is over in those trees doesn’t mean you have target acquisition to shoot it.

    • Mark Walker says:

      If the Spotting mechanic ruins it for you, you’re playing the game wrong. I often plow through several scenarios without ever attempting a Spot. If you sit there wasting impulses on Spotting the game will faithfully replicate what would happen if one side sat in place waiting to see what the other would do… pretty much nothing.

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