Back in the days of boxed computer games I would read entire game manuals, often before booting up the game itself, constrained from essaying even ‘a quick look’ while reading. It felt like cheating if I didn’t. In these days of downloaded games, the existence of an actual printed manual is mythic; a .pdf or .html version is the norm. So, not having something to actually sit back in my easy chair and read, I simply haven’t acquired the knack of reading .pdfs et al. ‘cover-to-cover’ before cracking a game any longer – assuming a decent tutorial and ‘essentials’, anyway.
In spite of this – or perhaps because of it – nowadays I don’t often encounter a wargame that appears innovative enough to inspire me to read the documentation beforehand. Yet I recently happened upon a promotional video for Shenandoah Studio’s Drive on Moscow: War in the Snow (DoM) – just released on PC/Steam for the first time – which did just that and more; I eventually read all threads in the forum that appeared remotely instructional, and watched all promotional videos. Was it worth the extra time and effort, you ask? Read on to find out.
It should be noted up front that this Drive on Moscow is a re-release/adaptation of the 2013 iOS version, with enhanced features from the developers’ previous re-master Battle of the Bulge. It received a very positive review on Wargamer and sister-site Pocket Tactics gave it 5-stars. I do not have any experience with the Crisis in Command Series in general though. This new version of Drive of Moscow is also available on iOS.
In any event, Drive on Moscow takes one in the opposite direction of the Bulge game – geographically and chronologically – pitting the Axis versus the U.S.S.R. in the relatively early days of Operation Barbarossa. As the title implies, the goal is for the Axis player to reach Moscow before winter, while the Soviet player attempts to preclude that eventuality. Players – two humans by hotseat or PBEM, else either side versus two levels of competent AI – will contest three scenarios, or the campaign combining them, over a map consisting of variously shaped ‘spaces’ rather than the customary hex- or tile grid. While their duration may seem short in terms of game turns – for scenarios, between four and six, inclusive, 22 for the full campaign – each turn comprises several ‘impulses’, where units in a selected space are ‘activated’ for movement. A maximum of three units per space, so that is the most that can be moved each impulse (although they can go in different directions).
Combat is mandatory if movement results in friendlies and enemies cohabiting a space, after which a random amount of game time between 0 and 18 hours elapses and the impulse passes to the opponent. A game turn completes every 72 to 120 hours, depending on the season (which, aptly, has crucial game effects; see later on). Then, supply status and so on is calculated, and the date advances; repeat.
Let the Games Begin…
Documentation consumed and armed with all of the knowledge I could find, I attempted the first scenario: “Operation Typhoon”. A mere five turns in length, I lost eight times in a row, not coming close to winning once. In fact, I have to share details of my ineptness here, if for no other reason than to excuse it later on: The requirement to win the scenario is 15 VP for the Axis, 13 or 14 for a draw; I managed 1, 5, then 8. “Oh,” I thought, “Here we go! I’m getting better.” Not so. I next achieved 4 VP, then -1, 4, 2, and finally 6, before I gave up and tried the next scenario, “At the Gates”. And what, dear reader, do you suppose happened then? Actually, I won – with relative ease: 37 of a required 35 VP.
So I said to myself, I said, “Self,” I said, “that’s more like it!” On to the next one, this time as the Soviets in “Zhukov’s Counterattack” (cuz I hate being on the defensive). You guessed it, intrepid reader: I got walloped again, the Axis keeping 36 of the required 22 VP for a Soviet victory!
Difficulties aside, there’s plenty about Drive on Moscow worth praising; the size of the zoom-able 2D map fits (at 2560×1080), and is moreover quite artistic, with weather effects readily apparent – albeit railroads often ‘spiral’ or occur in other odd patterns, doubtless to fit spaces and routes. Period background music plays over standard gunfire and explosions, and even though it at first seemed odd to hear the Soviet National Anthem and Russian-sounding radio chatter playing the Axis, one is in Russia, after all! The DoM unit ‘counters’ are somewhat unique, appearing as shiny plastic squares with readily distinguishable icons vice cardboard NATO counters. Yet I’m not completely sold on the effect, as they seemed ‘artificial’, clashing with the more realistic-looking playing surface, as well as historical names of divisions, corps, etc.
I Hear Moscow is Nice This Time of Year…
As to game mechanics, in addition to seasonal weather, where mud inhibits movement, and frost and winter impact defensive bonuses of woods and river crossings, supply plays a vital role in DoM, especially for the Axis (all of which is of course also historical). For example, a few somewhat randomised German tank units can run out of fuel most turns (but why not motorised?), and thus be unable to move. Forces totally cut off from supply depots (at the edges of the map) will no longer be able to move or defend until rescued and, if they remain in contact with the enemy, will furthermore lose a strength point each turn of isolation until they ‘surrender’. If you leave them on their own though, they act like Partisans instead and will disrupt your own supply lines. Rivers (when not frozen) and bridges also play major roles; using a bridge to enter an enemy-occupied zone can only be accomplished by one unit at a time per impulse; and river crossings provide the usual defender bonus.
Motorised and armoured units can naturally move farther than others – except cavalry and airborne, both of which only join the Soviet side – and thus, using them to their strengths is a requirement. (It’s just that I couldn’t figure out how to do it; more in a bit!) Cavalry are exempt from supply rules, and paratroops can airdrop up to four spaces away. The Soviet player can further use rail movement to greater advantage, and gets more replacements and reinforcements, all of which seems logical too. (The latter are ‘reformed’ destroyed units, while the former replace damage taken by those still on-board.) To offset these advantages, the Axis player is allowed an ‘air interdiction’ to begin each turn of good weather; a selected enemy unit will be immobilised for the turn.
It’s Not Me… It’s the Dice!
Despite its many innovations and my initial feeling that it all should work, I personally found Drive on Moscow frustrating with an overly steep learning curve (my ‘fluke’ one-time win of the second scenario notwithstanding). Although it might seem like whinging, I have always had less than ‘average luck’ (there’s no such thing!) in games like Risk, and it seems DoM depends on rogue fortune a lot. Unless I’m simply incompetent, of course. Like most people though, I have a breaking point whereupon if it’s no longer fun then why keep playing?
To the groggier of nards out there, a few things here might feel a bit counter-intuitive: For example, activating a single space at a time disallows any other units from joining a battle in a classic pincer movement; the three unit per space limit, plus bridge/river crossing restrictions, and seemingly ‘indestructible’ entrenched units, just piled on frustrations. Being unable to move more or less all my forces at once, then wage war, whereupon my opponent gets a turn… I found that, at scenario end, many of my units remained in the rear echelons, useless. The time-worn tactic of encircling and cutting off the enemy seems pointless; given the scenarios’ short lengths. There were some interface quirks as well – for example, mapping the Escape key so that a player can easily close menus wouldn’t have gone amiss.
To conclude then, Drive on Moscow turned out to be a bit of a personal let-down due to design choices that simply don’t work for me. Although I’m sure many will enjoy this re-release, especially those already familiar with its aforementioned predecessor Battle of the Bulge, I myself will not be driving to Moscow again any time soon.
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