Kharkov: Disaster on the Donets Review
By Chris Commodore |
Kharkov: Disaster on the Donets represents the best and worst of the wargaming genre. It's an ambitious design, full of the historical details and accurate combat modeling that grognards crave, and it recreates a thrilling battle along the Eastern Front with enough breakouts, pockets and sieges to satisfy any Red Army officer. On the other hand, gamers are left to climb much of this game's steep learning curve on their own and, once at the summit, may find their interest in this one battle isn't enough to justify the effort.
Described in a single sentence, Kharkov is a regimental level, turn-based wargame that covers the 16 days in May of 1942 when the Red Army tried to take back the city of Kharkov from the Germans. It clings to an attractive, if unsurprising board game style of presentation with a static hex map (although with some very attractive details) and traditional unit chits, dice rolls, and resolution tables.
Having only one scenario limits things a bit.When I first loaded up the game and saw that it only offers one single 16-turn scenario, and that the initial setup was simply one long front with Germans on one side and Russians on the other, I was pretty sure that I wasn't going to find much to like about it. Fortunately, the Russians have plenty of opportunity to break through the German lines, using their powerful armor, so the front opens up pretty quickly, just a few turns before the Germans are given the chance to launch their own counterattacks. It makes for a much more fluid battle than the initial starting positions might suggest.
But the size of the battle and the number of units involved is kept under control by the Area of Operations system. This new feature basically breaks down your units into discreet groups and limits them to a predefined zone. So instead of trying to manage the entire line as one big fight, you wind up fighting smaller battles all along the front, and the cumulative effect of your success and failures in each Area of Operations contributes to your overall victory in the wider fight. And since certain groups can gain a bigger Area of Operations at key turns or after the acquisition of certain objectives, it gives players small, achievable goals that they can work for over the course of a few turns.
The other big benefit to this system is that it lets the scenario designers limit the player's exploitation of their knowledge of the battle. For instance, knowing that the Germans have a few tanks hidden around Kharkov might encourage the Soviet player to draw forces away from a visible threat to deal with the tanks once they're revealed. With the new Area of Operations system, players won't be able to take advantage of that sort of knowledge beforehand. A few randomized boosts to certain groups' Areas of Operations keep the player guessing even after they've played the scenario through a few times. Though it's a nice way to lend a more historical feel to the battles, players can opt to play without this new feature.
The interface takes some time to learn but it works very well.Other additions include off-map reinforcement pools where you can actually choose from different entry points for your fresh forces. Having the chance to shift reinforcements from one side of a river to another before they arrive on the battlefield can make a big difference in their effectiveness once they show up. You'll need to be careful that you maintain control of your reinforcement points though, because once the Germans lose Kharkov, they've got a long walk to get back to the front. There's also a new interdiction system that lets players plan out air cover and, in the Russian case, partisan harassment of enemy troops. Detached rearguards, more effective direct fire support, a supply system that's chained through HQs now, and a host of other additions help to add more complexity and realism to the entire conflict.