Review: Blocks in the East (VentoNuovo Games)
Posted by Denny Koch on October 16, 2013
Game: Blocks in the East – The Russian Campaign 1941-1945
Publisher: VentoNuovo Games
Published in: 2012
Designer: Emanuele Santandrea
Era and Topic: World War II / Russian Campaign 1941-1945
Components: Two 87×62 cm mapboards (double laminated), rules manual (scenario booklet incl.), 1 booklet (Germany Strategic Map, Scenario Setup Charts, Play-Example), 317 wooden blocks, 318 PVC stickers (laminated),
100 wooden cubes, 50 cylinders, 30 discs, 50 factories, 7 dice
Game Type: Block game
Our Rating (1-10):
Graphic Presentation: 8
Replay Value: 7
Overall Rating: 6
|PRO||Colorful map; interesting combination of military and production / economics mechanics which leads to tough decision-making about where to spend the resources; great support by the designer; Rules 3.0 are solid and allow for an interesting, multi-layered game with a well-thought out sequence of play and combat sequence|
|CONTRA||Practical issues when actually playing the game: hexes are far too small and become crowded, which makes it difficult to keep track of units and terrain; printing errors on the map; dice-fest (may be a “pro” for some gamers, though); vital information only available on the official website for download, not included in the game box, so internet access is a MUST|
We love block games! We really enjoyed games like “Richard III” or “Julius Caesar” and think of the design as elegant, efficient, and smooth. In addition, in a block game, the Fog of War (FoW) comes naturally without clumsy concepts like “concealment counters” or “hidden units”, where you have to remember the position of each unit all the time.
Block games are full of surprises, the block system is transparent, step losses are handled easily and naturally and the FoW aspect is great.
Because of our past experiences with block games, we were quite enthusiastic when we heard about “Blocks in the East“, a new block game by Italian game company “VentoNuovo Games.” Operation Barbarossa is always an interesting scenario, we greatly enjoyed the strategic depth and opportunities of conducting a Russian Campaign in games like “The Russian Campaign“, or “Totaler Krieg“.
Blocks in the East (BitE) is an interesting mix of various game concepts, put together into one game: first, it’s a block game, which means that units are not depicted by counters or miniatures, but by wooden rectangular blocks. A sticker on one side of the block contains all information about the unit; a unit is reduced in steps by rotating it 90° until removed from the map when the last step is taken, while the opponent only sees the black back side so he is often unsure about the strength of the enemy units.
Second, BitE uses a hex grid on the mapboard. This isn’t unique in block games – there are several others with a hex grid, e.g. “Euro Front”, “Athens & Sparta”, or “Texas Glory” – but (with good reason) most block games use an area or point-to-point movement system. Since blocks are somewhat massive, area or point-to-point-movement appears to be more suitable. In hexes, the exact position of a block matters, and hexes must be very large to avoid a crowded map. You can push more blocks into an area or align them around a point on the map, so we were curious how BitE solves the problem of overcrowding a hex with blocks. The idea of using a hex grid (which is great for counters) together with the use of so many wooden blocks and how this game would deal with this situation, fueled our interest in the game.
Last but not least, what we read about BitE sounded like an interesting light wargame / consim hybrid. There is a hex grid, the rules contain many options for additional chrome, there are basic consim concepts like ZOC, terrain, or supply. At the same time, there are no combat odds or CRTs (Combat Result Tables) but tons of dice to be rolled (as in Axis & Allies or Zombies!!!). The colorful map looked beautiful on all the internet pictures we saw and the game appeared to be modern and interesting enough, so we were happy when our copy arrived in the HFC Test Lab.
Game components and graphic presentation
Box, contents, and initial preparations
When the box arrived, we were surprised – the blocks were smaller than expected. They are significantly smaller than blocks from any games by Columbia Games. Well, we considered this as a plus because we thought this would certainly help in avoiding a crowded map.
Before you can start playing, the stickers have to be applied to the blocks. The game contains a sticker sheet with the usual NATO symbols (there is also a special edition available which uses unit pictures instead of symbols). The blocks come in several colors, red for the Russians, black for the Germans, and several other colored blocks (white, green, blue) for minors and/or special units.
What we were missing in the rules (or on the sticker sheet), though, was information about which stickers belong to which blocks. Many of them were easy to assign – “normal” Russian and German units could be applied without problems. But we couldn’t figure out the meaning of some of the other stickers (informational ones, special units), and consulting the rule book didn’t help much because there is only a short list of game components which mentions which color belongs to which nation.
But there are not only unit stickers but also informational stickers which have to be applied to the blocks, and the meaning of some stickers isn’t clear when you unpack the game and never played it before. Fortunately, we discovered a unit chart in the download section of the official website with an overview of which sticker belongs to which faction / block color, but there was still some guessing left for the info stickers.
It would be really helpful if this table was included in the gamebox. We always think about the lone gamer who buys the game and is then left alone with what the box contains. The fact that rules are outdated as soon as they return from the printer has become quite common today, so we are always looking for the latest version of the Living Rules when we start a new game. Others don’t. They play with what they have, and have to deal with it. Not everyone has internet or knows the relevant websites. Or cares.
We understand that rules cannot be kept up-to-date in a game box, so the option of downloadable Living Rules is certainly a good way to include errata and clarifications which appear over the course of time (they mustn’t be used as an excuse for a half-finished or poorly tested game, though, with constant fixes and rules changes, which is tempting for some companies). But publishing other important information like help sheets and tables exclusively on the designer’s website instead of putting them into the box in the first place isn’t very consumer friendly – a game should always be playable out of the box. You buy a game, you take it home, you sit down alone or with friends, start reading the rules and playing the game. Most people don’t want to turn on the computer first and surf the internet for additional information and material first – which is even more annoying if you invited friends who are eager to start playing and hate it when you spend half of their valuable leisure time surfing for information about the game.
Besides applying the stickers, which takes about an hour, there isn’t much to do before you can start playing. The game uses additional wooden objects (tiny red, blue and yellow cubes as Production Points) as well as plastic objects (white and black cylinders, factories, and small discs as markers for partisan activities). The component quality is good, the wooden blocks and little cubes are evenly cut and also evenly dyed with distinct colors (which is important because otherwise the opponent could identify certain units by their markings on the backside of the blocks). Especially the little factories are really cool.
The box also contains a 2-part folded, full-color mapsheet, made from strong cardboard and with a protective laminate coating. The map depicts the area between Poland, Finland, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. A hex is approximately 70 km / 53 miles. Unfortunately, Germany isn’t on the map, and if you need it for gameplay purposes, you have to add an additional map piece (“mini extension”) to the western part of the map. This isn’t an optimal solution, since you need Germany most of the time (for setup, production and, in the final phase of the Campaign, for the race towards Berlin).
The map is large, but fits on a regular table, but we had to put the German add-on map on a separate cardboard sheet which protruded sideward from the table. We see that Germany didn’t fit onto the regular map due to its scale, but since it is a fundamental part of the map, this is a strange map design. Especially since the back side of the Germany map is printed with an example of play – and once you have blocks, factories or other stuff in Germany, you cannot consult the example anymore. And it’s not made from the same cardboard as the main map, it’s a paper map, so you have to place it on something thicker if it doesn’t fit on the table in order to attach it by sliding it under the main map. We had no other choice and we already own a large gaming table.
As awkward as the Germany map is the spelling of some locations. Some cities and locations are spelled in a strange matter or are printing errors. Some locations have their English names (Moscow, Munich), some have their native names. Some names have printing errors (Reuttlingen, Brunscweigh, Costata). The map could have done with some additional proof-reading, because map errata are almost impossible to fix later and you have to stare on weird city names all the time during gameplay. In a historical game which is proud of its historical research and background and which wants to be a consim, this is much worse than in a beer & pretzels game because the average consim player is a history buff and expects accuracy.
One positive aspect of the map is the fact that it is printed sideways – which means that both players can read the texts without one player being forced to look at an upside-down-map (which is often the case in other games). The faction-specific tracks are printed on the respective players’ sides, which is quite comfortable.
The map itself is printed in a very colorful, rich and detailed fashion with even a tiny Kreml depiction in Moscow or a Lenin picture in Leningrad. But despite all these colorful depictions, details, and terrain printings, the map lacks one essential and very basic feature, which was one of our greatest show-stoppers in our attempts to enjoy the map: there isn’t a sufficient map legend printed on the map.
Well, there is some kind of terrain key on the map, but it is nowhere near to complete. The most basic terrain features (clear, wood, swamp) are depicted, but the map shows an abundance of symbols, icons and features, which are not explained on the map. Some are explained somewhere in a side note in the rule book, but some are not explained at all or – even worse – are not relevant for BitE (because they will only become relevant if you combine the game with a later game of the series) and are not explained.
This leads to awkward speculations about what the symbols may mean. For example, the rules differentiate between a major port and a minor port. On the map, there are various anchor symbols, some are elaborate and white or golden, others are more abstract and black. First, we speculated that the tiny black anchors are minor ports and the large golden and white anchors are major ports. This didn’t make much sense, though, so when we asked the designer, we learned that major ports are connected by blue lines and have an orange anchor symbol while black anchors are minor ports. The golden or white anchors are irrelevant for BitE (something about shipyards), as well as the blue lines at sea which connect to major ports.
Together with rules version 3.0, the designer also published the 3.0 Charts on the official websites. These contain many of the initially missing charts and essential information, like an illustration which explains the symbols printed on the map, an explanation of how to use the production trackers and some clarifications regarding Production Points. Downloading this chart before playing for the first time is highly recommended and almost vital if you don’t want to struggle with the map as we did when we were learning the game “out of the box” which of course heavily slowed down the learning process.
There is also an abundance of colored dotted lines on the maps. Some depict Military districts (which can be identified by an illustration on the back of the rule book), but are hard to track on the map – especially once you started placing your blocks which then hide any terrain features, keys, symbols, lines or icons. The Western military districts could be identified, but we never figured out where the Caucasus Military district was, so we had to improvise. No dots here, no illustration, nothing. Luckily, the designer now included an illustration for the “Barbarossa setup” into rulebook 3.0. On the official website, there are also setup charts available for download for the various scenarios.
There are other strange symbols on the map where the meaning can only be deducted, for example weird objects near Stalingrad (the meaning becomes clearer once you start reading the advanced and optional rules, but these features are very irritating at first because you have the constant feeling of missing something important, before you learn that these icons don’t affect you in any way until you play with certain rules).
Some colors are hard to differentiate, for example some orange and red cities look very similar (for example Belgrade, a capital, vs. Sarajevo, a major city).
The required terrain / movement / attack charts are also printed on the map. Since they consist of lots of asterisks, foot-notes and are printed in a tiny font, it would have been better if these charts were added to the game as separate player aid sheets. In our games, one side often had problems to identify the meaning of a certain combat / terrain effect just because the charts were written in such a cumbersome way.
Fortunately, the new 3.0 charts now also contain the Terrain Modifiers chart, so that each player can print it and use it for easier reference.
The full-color rules manual, which was included in the game box, was version 2.0. Since we always try to play with the latest rules to give a fair review about the current state of the game, we downloaded the Beta rules 2.2 and the current Living Rule book from the official website, since we were not sure which of the two was newer or better, and started learning the game with these versions.
A new rulebook version (3.0) was published in July 2013, which included clarifications and examples for questions and ambiguous points which were raised during the last few months (including ours which we sent to the designer in the beginning of the HFC test lab phase). So by now, the rules are solid and have improved much since the publishing of rules 2.0 / 2.2.
Fortunately, many of the most problematic rules in the older versions of the rule book were clarified and the wording became much more comprehensive (for us, some rules became playable for the first time, for example Air Recon, which was initially written in such a mistakable way that it didn’t work for us). It was really great how fast the designer, Emanuele Santandrea, responded to our list of ambiguous and problematic rules and to our suggestions regarding a more precise wording. He even offered Skype support to help us learning the game and we had some intense email correspondences. That’s exemplary support by a designer who really cares about the players of his game!
Generally speaking, in BITE, don’t expect a precise or clear wording or rock-hard definition of basic game concepts as you are probably accustomed to from games like Totaler Krieg or ASL. Despite being a consim, the rules are written in a somewhat “easygoing” way which is meant to support the “easy rules, but not an easy game” design goal. The stated main intention was to create a consim which can be played very easily, even for wargaming newcomers, so the rules renounce from the usual elaborate “dry” definitions of terms and wordings that tackle each aspect of a given rule. This may be helpful for inexperienced gamers or gamers who like a relaxed approach to a game and who don’t mind filling rules holes by improvising or by simply playing as they feel right without caring if their approach is correct. It can be a problem, though, for experienced consim players who expect a certain precise wording, clear definitions and as much exactness as possible without ambiguities or a “relaxed” use of terms.
Unfortunately, we appear to belong to the second group because, in the beginning, we hard a hard time learning the game. Just to be sure, we are accustomed to games with very complex rules, we are longtime ASL players, we play complex consims like Totaler Krieg, Empire of the Sun, Vietnam 1965-1975, Imperium Romanum II and many more games with very long and detailed rules. This isn’t our first block game, either, so our problems were certainly not based on inexperience.
On the contrary – we are probably unable to see the game through “easy” glasses and play it as we would a fun wargame or any other board game. Since the game wants to be a consim, we felt compelled to apply consim standards, and so we had our struggles with the rules while learning the game. This was with Beta rules 2.2, though, which were far from perfect and contained many ambiguities and our problem was that we didn’t want to fill the holes with our own fantasies or house rules.
With the publication of rules 3.0, learning the game will definitely become much easier for new players, but downloading these rules is a must, you cannot and should not use the rules 2.0 included in the game box! These old rules are ambigious or even broken in some aspects, e.g. the Air Recon part, which is given to misunderstanding.
While the great support, the new charts, and the reworded rules in rulebook 3.0 are commendable, we always think it a bit problematic that players are forced to consult the internet great-scale before they can start playing the game (apparently, we are somewhat old-fashioned here). Most wargamers are internet-affine and know the important resource websites. Most are experienced enough to check for a current rule book first before using the rule book contained in the game box. But there are still enough gamers who don’t have the means to do research in internet forums, or who are willing or able to personally contact the designer to get their questions answered. So unfortunately, we have to deduct some points here because we are also assessing how good a game works “out of the box” for the average player. So the new stuff should be included in the game box as fast as possible.
One thing which is also problematic for experienced consim players (and especially ASL players like us), that we tend to use COWTRA (“Concentrate On What The Rules Allow”) in combination with an exact wording where a term describes a certain thing (“when in doubt, interpret strictly”) – and not three different, probably contradictory things simultaneously. Synonymous use of various words for the same concept, or the use of one word to describe different gameplay aspects is something which should be avoided in a consim under all circumstances. The Axis Empires:Totaler Krieg rules are a perfect example of clear rules where a term or definition is exactly that – a term and a definition.
In BitE, we felt sometimes reminded of the rules to “Lock’n Load Vietnam“, which were also an example of ambiguous and unnecessarily confusing wording (we still remember our debates with Mark Walker regarding the term “clear LOS”, which suggested that there must be something like an “obstructed LOS” as well). The best example in BitE are the words “Deep Water hexside” vs. “Sea” vs. “Water Portion of Coastal Hex” vs. “All-Water Lake” vs. “Lake Hexside”. We still haven’t figured out what some of these terrain descriptions mean, so we never figured out the possible differences (and the practical implications) or if there are differences at all.
The rules are divided into Basic, Advanced, and Optional Rules. The first few games should be played with the basic rules to learn the core mechanics of movement and combat. Advanced rules then add more features like production, weather, advanced supply, and activation rules where HQs are required to activate units. The Optional Rules add chrome to the game, for example Air Recon, which allows to reveal the contents of an enemy hex during the movement phase, or special units like Stukas, airborne, cavalry, or concepts like amphibious landings, partisans, and reserves.
Not all rules have to be used at once. While the Basic and Advanced rules are mandatory, you can then add as many optional rules as you like. Since many rules prefer one faction over the other, you can also use them to give a weaker player an advantage or to play with a voluntary handicap.
Ideally, between two equally strong players, you should use optional rules that hinder or promote both factions equally. We didn’t figure out yet how balanced the game remains when all optional rules are used simultaneously. Many of these rules add only chrome, which results in additional dice or simple modifiers during specific situations.
Gameplay and Playability
The basic gameplay is pretty straightforward, the game follows a well thought-out Sequence of Play (SoP), divided into several Phases. An overview over the SoP can be found on the Charts 3.0, which serves as a good guideline through the first introductory games.
One player plays the Soviets while the other player plays the Axis (Germany plus Hungary, Finland, Italy, Romania). The Russians don’t have minor Allies in BITE. It is also possible to play the game solitaire or with four players where two players share one faction (which is actually the way the designer of the game prefers to play it but of course this is not always possible due to a lack of players around).
The advantage of playing the game with two players instead of playing it solitaire is that you can use the “Fog of War” which is created naturally by the use of blocks, since your opponent only sees the backsides of the blocks. The advantage of playing the game solitaire is that you can stack the blocks on top of each other within a hex, which solves one of the main problems of the game: the too small, crowded hexes when you place all blocks in the FoW-style with their printed side facing their owner.
Scenarios and victory condition
The game is scenario based, there are 9 scenarios overall, ranging from difficulty levels 1 to 10. There are two short introductory scenarios which are played with the basic rules. Then there are short and long scenarios which are played with the full rules (and as many optional rules as you like). The “true” BITE game is, of course, the full-length campaign game “Codeword Dortmund – The Russian Campaign”, which takes 49 rounds to complete.
A new player should certainly not jump directly into the campaign but start with the two introductory scenarios. Both take only 4 rounds and use a small area of the map. After completing the introductory game and some shorter scenarios with “full” rules, players will know whether they like the game or not and whether they want to jump into the 49 rounds campaign game (which will take several days to complete).
The game doesn’t have a “fixed” victory condition; the victory condition is defined by the scenario you play.
For example, in the first introductory scenario, the German player has to capture (or cut off) Leningrad in order to win. The Russian player cannot win (this is only a tutorial, remember), so if Germany fails, the result is a draw. In the grand campaign game, the Axis player wins immediately if he controls all 4 Soviet victory cities or 3 of them in a fixed combination plus a friendly die roll. The Soviet player wins immediately if he controls Berlin before July 1945.
When playing our first games, we severely struggled with the setup, because the setup description of rules 2.2 left many questions of a new player unanswered.
As a result, the designer added scenario setup charts for download, which show which units go where. It is highly recommended to download them from the official website before you start with your first game!
During setup, you have to check out the scenario description. Most scenarios use the standard “Barbarossa setup” plus some special rules.
Some problems remain, though, which cannot be resolved by printed player aids. They are inherent to a game design which uses blocks on a map with hexes. You have to setup units in certain districts or areas (where you can distribute them freely within certain limitations). The districts are marked by tiny colored dots on the map (or an illustration on the back of the rule book). The problem is, once you set up some of your blocks, they begin to cover the border lines on the map, which makes tracking the several districts even harder. You need keen eyes to spot the setup zones and following the dotted lines becomes sort of a paper chase, especially for the Russian player from his side of the table. Without the setup charts, setup can be quite long because you spend more time searching for a certain area than thinking about the strategical impact of your setup.
The position of the Caucasus Military district isn’t clear at all because there is no dotted line and no illustration on the district sheet. The location of this district should be mentioned somewhere, whether in the rules or in an additional illustration.
In addition, in some of the shorter scenarios, not the entire map is in play, so you have to set up reminders (we used some of the wooden PP cubicles) where your playable area is, which means you get even more stuff on the crowded map.
A crowded map!
So during setup, the major problem we have with the game becomes visible: the map is, as often with such games, far too small. This problem is increased by the fact that the game utilizes a hex grid, which makes it difficult to put the blocks you need in a specific area into hexes. A maximum of 3 blocks, standing upright, fits comfortably into a hex, but in many hexes, there are 4 blocks. During combat, this number can be increased to 8 blocks (4 friendly, 4 enemy units), and both sides can also add additional air support blocks, so that 10+ blocks can be placed into one hex large enough to house 3 blocks.
Then there are additional objects like oil barrels, supply barrels, and markers like blue river cubicles which also belong to certain blocks, so you have to watch out that the game doesn’t change into Domino. Since most of the battles are fought at a tight frontline, you can have several adjacent hexes which are totally overcrowded.
The rules suggest that you put the contents of a combat hex elsewhere until combat is resolved and leave only a placeholder in the combat hex, but this can be quite fiddly, especially if a combat hex is surrounded by several non-combat hexes containing 4 blocks plus several markers of both nationalities. This problem isn’t so drastic in an area- or point-to-point game because you are more free in arranging your blocks’ position in and around the allowed map area. But moving large amounts of blocks around a hex grid becomes really painful early in the game – you not only lose track of which units belongs in which hex, it’s also very hard to have an overview over your units in the first place.
After setting up your units along a crowded frontline, it’s really difficult to remember which unit stood where – blocks are stacked in front of each other and you have to push them around or lift them if you want to see the unit sticker, and you don’t have the chance to put them so that each block is visible because there isn’t enough space to shift them around or put them in an alternating fashion.
So for us, losing the overview over our own units was very annoying because it hindered planning our moves in advance. If you know you want to conduct an attack on Kiev in your next turn and cannot see who’s who and don’t want to shuffle the blocks around even more without losing track of which block belongs into which hex, you feel robbed of your strategical options. In a “hex ‘n counter” game, you simply take your tweezers and take a look into your stack if you lost track, but in this red and black ocean without knowing who’s who, this becomes a hopeless (and even dangerous – because of the ‘Domino effect’) effort.
What makes things even worse is the fact that the blocks completely cover terrain, so we found it extremely difficult to keep track of who crossed a river (we often overlooked them because they were buried under blocks) or we were surprised if we moved a combat group into an enemy hex, only to find that there was rough terrain under the enemy blocks we were unable to spot before moving our units.
We asked around the internet how others resolved this handling problem and got some tips like turning moved blocks sideways (important since you also have to keep track of who moved and who didn’t in the red and black sea), others built large towers of blocks which were laying on their backs (this wasn’t an option for us since we especially like the FOW in a block game where you only see the blank back side of an enemy counter). In the end, we didn’t find a satisfying solution to this problem, so the handling of the blocks in BITE remains one of our largest problems and complaints. We definitely need a larger map with larger hexes which comfortably house at least four blocks without concealing the inherent terrain or rivers or borders, or *gasp* the option to play the game with counters (which would solve many problems at once, but would also make any FoW impossible).
In our personal experience, the playability suffers from the crowded maps. We wanted to include as many rules as possible (we always like chrome in a game, if it doesn’t overload the gameplay), so we decided to use all optional rules in our grand Campaign. This proved to be difficult, not because applying the rules was a problem, but simply because we tended to overlook the appropriate units on the map or lost track of them when they disappeared into the red-black sea.
Also, we found deciding which units will move in reserve quite difficult because we had to think ahead which unit will be in which position after movement and combat. In the end, we didn’t use the (theoretically very useful) reserve optional rule very much, simply because it was too difficult to designate a certain unit. Again, our strategy and tactics – especially planning in advance – were hindered by physical obstacles.
Usually, it’s no problem for us to plan ahead in a game, even more than several turns, but in BITE, we had serious problems of keeping track of our units during a single given turn, let alone of where a unit would be in two or three turns… or even at the end of a turn.
For us, it was extremely difficult to plan a successful large-scale attack and maneuver if you don’t even know the terrain in the target hex – and how to remove the four enemy units in there to set up a battle without messing up all adjacent hexes. We are still very thankful for any tips or advice of how to play the game practically - how do other players manage to keep track of everything that’s going on? Of the position of their units? Who moved, who didn’t? Who crossed a river? Which terrain is in which hex? We could never utilize our strategies to our full advantage because we always felt hindered by the loss of a solid overview over our units and over the current tactical situation.
This is a pity because the game itself certainly offers interesting gameplay mechanics and tough decision-making in production vs. military upkeep.
Sequence of Play
Besides this practical problem, the Sequence of Play isn’t very complicated and can easily be remembered. Since the game is meant to be played with the Basic as well as the Advanced rules (the basic game is only for learning purposes), we want to give you a short overview over the “full” SoP (in addition, you can add as many optional rules as you like, most of them add modifications to existing rules or give one side or the other side an advantage).
A game is played over several turns (which are called Rounds in BITE). One turn is one month.
A. Weather Determination Phase
This step is only conducted during May and October turns, the other turns have fixed weather which can be read off the turn track on the map. In May and October turns, the Russian player rolls for weather with a die (1-3 = good, 4-6 = rain). Weather affects the Movement Costs.
B. Axis Phases
First, the Axis player completes all phases. There is no alternating gameplay, the Axis does their turn, followed by a Russian turn., so it’s classic IGO/UGO in BITE.
1. Strategic Warfare Phase
This phase belongs to an Optional Rule, so you can skip it if you don’t play with the Optional Rule “Strategic Warfare“.
In this phase, events outside the Russian Theater are depicted – the Western Allies bombing Germany and the Germans trying to destroy Land-Lease convoys to Russia. The Air-war over Germany is conducted during the Axis turn when the Russian player can target hexes in Germany with strategic bomber units in order to cripple German production. During the Russian turn, the Axis player tries to attack (abstracted) convoys with strategic submarine units. Both attacks are resolved by rolling dice.
2. Supply Phase
Here, the phasing player checks which of his units are in supply. Units out of supply are marked with a white plastic barrel. Over the course of the next phases, supply is not checked again, so it’s perfectly possible to move out of supply afterwards without immediate consequences, because only units with the barrel are considered to be out-of-supply units which then have some limitations in movement, reinforcement and attack capabilities. Since units with a white barrel are eliminated later in the turn, when a second check is made for them, you should try to bring them back into supply during the next phases.
A unit which doesn’t have a white barrel, but moves “out of supply” during the movement phase, is NOT considered to be out of supply when it attacks later in the turn because supply is only checked at the beginning of the turn – and not before each and every step. This is something you need to get accustomed to because it differs from many other games where you have to keep an eye on your supply lines constantly.
3. Production Phase
In this phase, the player gets the “currency” of the game: “Production Points” (PP). There are various types of PP: yellow, red, black, and blue ones. In the game, small wooden cubicles are used as PP markers. The amount of PP a player gets in a turn is either defined by the scenario or calculated based on the number of intact production sites on the map and other factors. Certain events can reduce or raise the amount of PP received (for example, the destruction of a factory or successful strategic bombing). The color of a PP is determined by the scenario or the type of production site (there are armor factories, which produce red PP, hydrogenation plants, which produce black ones, mines etc.).
PP are used for various actions in the game – for repairing reduced units, for bringing back destroyed units, for building new factories (which, in turn, produce more PP), for conducting technology research and for strategic rail movement (SRM). Since your amount of PP is limited, you cannot do everything you want at the same time, you always have to decide what is more important to you – moving units around by rail? Investing in long and expensive research or factory building? Reinforcing your units at the front? Building new units back home? Resource management and decision-making about your priorities plays an important part in BITE.
After receiving your PP for the turn, you have the chance to spend them immediately to repair supplied ground units on the map (i.e. units without a white barrel) by spending an amount of PP according to the color of the next higher number you want to turn the block to – a black number costs 1 yellow PP, a white number 2 yellow PP, a red number 3 yellow PP, while a blue number can never be repaired. What makes this procedure so expensive is the fact that for each unit which isn’t an infantry unit, additional colored PPs have to be spent. So if you want to repair an armor with a black number, you have to spend 1 yellow PP plus one additional red PP. An Air unit costs an additional blue PP for each yellow PP spent. A HQ unit costs a black PP for each yellow PP. That means a red step on an armor unit costs 3 yellow and 3 red PP!
Alternatively, a destroyed block can be brought back into the game by paying the required amount of PP according to the color of the first number, then, if you have PP left, you can bring the block to higher strength on the map. Destroyed units have to be brought back in production centers in their home country, according to their type (there are armor factories and air factories), while infantry units can be brought back in home country major cities or fortresses within certain restrictions detailed by the rules.
It is possible to bring every unit back to life, even very special and exotic units (exception: the unit steps start with a blue number, since blue numbers can never be rebuilt).
You are not forced to spend all your PP for repairing or rebuilding units, you can save them for later in the Saved PP box. The problem here is – if you want to save a colored PP, you always have to save them paired with a corresponding yellow (=generic) PP. If you only have 3 blue PP left without yellow ones, the blue PP are lost and cannot be saved.
After receiving PP and repairing units, new reinforcements may arrive if any are scheduled on the unit arrival track for the current month. These may have a fixed spawn location (for example a city or a district) or have to appear according to their unit type. These scheduled reinforcements can be held back for later turns, if desired.
After all reinforcements are taken, the player has the chance to disband a unit. This can be helpful if a unit is struck in a remote place where it is of no use, so that it can be rebuilt in the next turn. Only supplied units can be disbanded, you cannot use this as a “trick” to save out-of-supply units from surrendering to the enemy.
4. Strategic Rail Movement Phase
In this turn, the player can move units strategically along rail lines (which costs PP). This phase is perfect for transporting new units from the home country, or from a remote spawn location to the front lines, or to reinforce critical locations.
The amount of units which can be moved by rail is limited, however. The Russian can only make 5 Rail Movements per turn, the Axis can make 4 Rail Movements in Russia, 1 in Scandinavia and an unlimited number outside of the Soviet union. Since each movement costs 1 valuable yellow PP or 1 Headquarter Activation Point, you won’t move many units this way in a turn and you really have to plan in advance whether you want to make any Rail Movements in a given turn before you spend all your PP for rebuilding units, doing research etc..
5. Movement Phase
In the Advanced Game (which should be considered the Standard game, since the Basic game only serves as an introductory mode), you need Headquarters to “fuel” any actions by spending their activation points. So if you don’t have a HQ in the vicinity, your allowed actions are very limited. It’s one of the key aspects of the game to keep a good eye on your HQs and to position them strategically along your front lines.
In addition, not all Headquarters can activate all units – Armor HQs can only activate armor units, Air HQs can only activate Air units. There are also special rules regarding the different nationalities of the Axis units, and for Supreme HQs. In order to activate units, HQs also have to watch out for range limits and ZOC.
During the Movement Phase, you can move your units separately or together as a stack. You pay the movement cost for each hex entered depending on terrain, weather, and the Tech Level of your units. That’s something you have to get accustomed to – Soviet units start at Tech Level One, which means that a Soviet ground unit always has 3 MP. German units start at Tech Level 2 and have 4 MP available. There are no individual movement points for individual units, all ground units – whether they are tanks or infantry – have the same amount of MP during the regular Movement Phase. There is only a bonus for a few special units (for example, a mountain unit spends 1 MP less when entering a hill).
The Movement Point / Movement Cost system is something we struggled with at the beginning. First, we didn’t understand why Infantry and Armor units have the same amount of MP available, that’s something we were not accustomed to from other games we know. You simply have to accept this as a design decision of this game.
Something we found not too elegant is the fact that you have to look up the Movement and Attack values and Movement costs of units in 2 different charts with much fine print in the foot-notes. So if you want to move with a Tech Level 2 German “tankette” unit into a rough hex during rain, you have first to frequent the Tech Level Details and Development Chart to search for a tankette unit Level 2. Then, when you found your MP allowance, you have to frequent the Terrain Modifiers Chart with the MP cost for the different units. Since both charts have little numbers which lead to fine print below the charts, looking up something is more cumbersome than necessary (especially in combat, where you have to frequent these tables in an even more complicated way).
Fortunately, the new Charts 3.0 contain an abbreviated list of MP, AF and DF for all Tech Levels in one table, but at the cost of the special rules hidden in the fine print. It’s very helpful for easy reference and quick look-up, though.
During the Movement Phase, the phasing player first moves all his ground units (depending on his HQ activation, of course, he will not have the resources to move all of his units in a given turn). This can be quite problematic along the front lines because the block density is extremely high there. If you want to attack a hex, you have to move your units into this hex – and this hex usually contains several defending blocks. In addition, as already mentioned, it’s next to impossible to see the terrain below the blocks at the front line, so we had a hard time figuring out when a block crossed a river (important for combat). We found it even more difficult to plan a longer movement in advance because plotting a move through several hexes requires knowledge of the terrain below – and we could not lift or push around the many blocks along a path without risking to lose track of which block stood where.
So despite the fact that the rules are now more comprehensive and complete with the revision 3.0 and that the new charts 3.0 are extremely helpful, we have still problems with playing the game practically. So hints about how you handle a 2-player-game with Fog of War (blocks standing upright, not laying on their backs in a huge stack) are still very welcome.
After moving all ground units, the phasing player moves his air units. Air units have a range of 5 or 10 hexes, depending on type, and always start from Air Bases. They don’t fight on their own but add their value to a combat. So you have to fly them into the combat hexes as well. We put them on top of the blocks within a given combat hex, if the hex itself was too crowded, so we added a second level to the blocks within one hex. This was not very satisfying because the opponent could easily recognize which of the enemy units was the air unit and in a block game the FoW aspect is there to always have your opponent guessing what he might have to face in the next battle.
The Movement Phase can also be used to rebase Air units to other Air bases (here, the allowed MP are doubled), so it’s easy to transfer an air unit to a remote base as a staging area for the next attacks. You have to watch out that you move your Air HQ as well, though, or your Air units won’t take off…
6. Defender Reaction Phase
After all Movement is done, the Defender gets the chance to move his air units into the combat hexes as well. Combat hexes are easily recognized because they contain blocks of both sides, and sometimes an air unit on top. (Since we put the air units on top of the crowded hexes, the opponent often knows where we moved our air units without the need to memorize our movements and watch out carefully which unit moved where – which is contradictory to the FoW design idea of a block game). Then the defender is free to move any of his air units currently in an Air Base (which is not under attack) to any battle location hexes within range.
Here, you have to watch out which units you move – depending on the Tech Level, not all units will be able to fight in an air battle (which precedes the ground combat). If you have a Level 1 Bomber unit, it will not be able to shoot back at enemy air units, so sending one into a hex where you can see that your opponent already has an Level 2 air unit of his own will result in suicide.
The defender is not allowed to move ground units during this Phase (with the exception of armor units he designated as reserve during his armor exploitation phase, if you use the “Reserves” optional rule).
7. Combat Phase
Combat is conducted in several steps. The attacker chooses the order in which the combats are resolved. The Combat Sequence is also printed on Charts 3.0 for easy reference.
a. Air to Air Combat Step
Air combat is resolved simultaneously and over multiple rounds, which can result in extensive dice rolling. Air units hit on a 5-6 or 6 (depending on type and Tech Level) and they roll with as many dice as they have steps left. One hit reduces an enemy air unit by 1 step (i.e. it is turned 90° to the next weaker side), some units with better armor are only reduced when they suffer 2 steps.
To find out the Hit numbers of each unit depending on type, Tech Level or based on the fact whether a unit is the attacker or defender, you have to consult the Tech Level and Development Charts again. Here, only the fine print explains that “OF” (which means offensive firepower to ground units) in this case means the Air-to-Ground-Firepower of an aircraft, while “DF” (defensive firepower) means the Air-to-Air capability.
After each round of Air to Air Combat, both players have the chance to withdraw their aircraft, otherwise, the combat continues. If there are many strong aircraft in a battle, you roll tons of dice until one side is significantly reduced or chooses to give up.
This was something we found somewhat repetitive, it strongly reminded us of Axis & Allies and other “dice-fest” games. Certainly not something we love in a consim. In BITE, we are still of the opinion that another type of combat resolution (less dice, applying of Combat Odds / Ratios in a single result) would have been better. Because, during one combat phase, you roll lots and lots of dice, and to us, this was somewhat anticlimactic.
b. Anti-Aircraft Step
After Air-to-Air combat is resolved (=one side has no more air units in the battle), the Anti-Aircraft fire Step is resolved (provided one side has at least one air unit left).
Here, all opposing ground units in the combat hex again roll as many dice as they have steps. In addition, cities roll dice for their inherent Flak. All units use their defensive firepower, as listed on the Tech Level and Development chart. As you can imagine, this can also result in an immense amount of dice rolling!
c. Air-to-Ground-Combat Step
If an air unit with air-to-ground-attack capabilities survives steps a. and b., it is now free to attack the ground units with an air-to-ground attack. This is resolved by rolling as many dice as the air units have steps. There are certain restrictions depending on the type of air units in the hex, e.g. defending bombers in a hex are not quick enough to lift off as a quick response force, so they have to endure this attack for the first round as if they were ground units.
There is only one round of air-to-ground combat during each Combat round, as opposed to the air-to-air-combat which can be repeated until one side is shot down or gives up.
d. Artillery Step
During this step, the artillery units of the attacker fire first, followed by the defender’s artillery units. Artillery units are special ground units because they fire before all other ground units. In addition, in order to show the ammunition depletion, they have to be turned 90 degrees each time they fired. So their firepower is not unlimited and rebuilding them is expensive because it requires the spending of PP next turn.
Artillery units roll one die per step and hit according to the Tech and Development chart.
e. Ground Combat
Last but not least, the remaining ground combat units fire at each other. The defender’s units fire first, combat is not simultaneous. There is only one round of ground combat before the entire combat sequence starts again (or the combat is over).
Each ground unit rolls dice according to the number of steps, the Hit numbers for each unit can be found in the Tech Level and Development Chart. The numbers depend on unit type and tech level and whether you are the defender or attacker, same as in the previous combat. In addition, you now have to consult the Terrain Modifier chart for combat modifiers and special rules. Again, a lot of important information is written in fine print below the chart, which prevents to get the required information on one quick glance. After a while you know your combat modifiers and numbers by heart, but for the beginner, looking up the information in both tables is somewhat inconvenient and extremely slowing down gameplay.
When applying hits, the strongest units must be reduced first. If two units have the same strength, the owner chooses which of his units is to be reduced.
After the combat is resolved, both sides have the chance to retreat their ground units (defender first), following certain rules for ZOC and direction. If neither side retreats and both sides have units remaining, a new combat round starts, beginning with the Anti-Aircraft Fire step.
When combat is resolved and there is only one side left in the hex, all air units must return to base.
f. Final Supply Phase
In this phase, supply is checked for a second time, but again – only units with a white barrel on top are taken into consideration. If they are still out of supply, they surrender now (which means some free PP for the opponent as a reward). If they are in supply now, the barrel is removed.
It doesn’t matter if any of your other units are out of supply at this point of the game.
g. Armor Exploitation Phase
During this phase, certain types of units (depending on nationality and Tech level) can be moved a second time now but they still need HQ activation. This time, the units have to be in supply and supply must be checked (there cannot be any units with white barrels left by now!). If you discover any armor unit which is out of supply now, it gets a white barrel. After the phase is over, any white barrels are removed again.
Checking supply outside the supply phase and when a unit is eligible for the supply check and when it is irrelevant, is a bit confusing at first.
Armor units can move normally (as in the movement phase) but cannot start new combats in this phase.
In addition, if you use the Optional Rule “Reserves” you can designate certain ground units for “reserve movement” during the regular movement phase. If you did this, these units can also move now. If you designate some of your armor units now, you cannot exploit with them, but you can instead move them during your opponent’s turn to reinforce battle hexes with them. In theory, this is a very cool rule and we always included it into our games. Practically, we didn’t use it very often because the situation on the map was too unclear to us due to the overcrowding at the front lines.
C. Soviet Turn
After the Exploitation Phase is over, it’s the Soviet players turn. Repeat all phases a-g.
D. Victory Phase
After the Soviet player’s turn is over, victory conditions are checked. There are some victory conditions which apply always, regardless of the scenario (Germans, Finns, Romanians, Hungarians surrender immediately when their capital is lost, there are special surrender states for Italy and the Finns) but the Soviets surrender under certain conditions detailed in the scenario description. The game ends immediately if Germany surrenders (Sudden Death).
In addition, each scenario has special victory conditions. If they are not fulfilled, the game turn marker is advanced to the next turn.
Depending on the scenario and number of turns, a game takes between several hours and several days. The full Barbarossa Campaign is 49 turns long and takes several days to complete.
The game is scenario based, but in the end, it’s the “Codeword Dortmund” Campaign that will be played as the “true” BITE experience.
The first introductory scenarios will only be played a few times to get a grasp of the core mechanics. The other scenarios, starting at different points during the Barbarossa Campaign, are certainly useful when you don’t have much time or don’t want to play a game over several weeks. So you can tailor the game to your time schedule by choosing a scenario with an appropriate number of turns.
Since the great campaign is the heart and meat of BITE, the true challenge lies in conducting Operation Barbarossa from the beginning to the end. Here, the replay value is certainly high (provided, you enjoy the game and can handle the problems we mentioned, e.g. the crowded map and hidden terrain), because you can try out different strategies each time you play – you can play in an aggressive, military-focused style where most of your PP go into maneuvering and the upkeep of your units, or you can try out various other strategies, for example doing much research, upgrading your units fast, building many factories for production etc.. Experimenting with the various options and levels of decision-making will keep you playing for a long while.
In addition, there will also be the option of combining BITE with other (future) games of the series, like Blocks in the West, Blocks in the Pacific and Blocks in Africa. We cannot imagine how this can be played in a manageable manner, but if you are a fan of the Blocks series, this could add another level of challenge if you have to divide your resources among two or even more frontlines instead of one.
The idea of combining a block game with a hex grid isn’t new, but the game mixes together various ideas and concepts in an attempt to create something new. Nevertheless, the game has many similarities with Columbia Games’ block game East Front, which also uses hexes, HQ activation, production levels and much dice rolling with similar hit numbers.
On the one hand, the game wants to be of the “easy to learn, hard to master” type, on the other hand, it uses consim concepts like ZOC, supply, HQ activation – some of them in a quite uncommon fashion (for example regarding the supply rules). Then there is the combination of complex tables for movement and combat, and on the other hand, there are no combat odds, no ratios, but you throw tons of dice like in a party game.
Whether you like the mix is completely up to you – for our taste, we would have preferred a “traditional” combat resolution system with combat odds and much less dice rolling. It would speed up the game and prevent it from being to repetitive.
The designer stresses how much research went into the OOB (Order of Battle), i.e. the units depicted in this game. In addition to this, there are some “simulative” aspects like supply or terrain. On the other hand, the game makes many abstractions or generalizations in order to smooth the gameplay to fit the “easy to learn, hard to master” approach.
BITE certainly isn’t a hard-core simulation which sacrifices playability and accessibility for a realistic, historical setting (like, for example, Imperium Romanum II, where even some scenarios are heavily imbalanced because they want to be as historically accurate as possible).
So if you expect a tough-as-nails-simulation about the Russian Campaign, you won’t find it here. BITE is a game that is trying to appeal to “Light” wargamers as well as consim players, with certain simulative aspects, but also many abstractions for easing the gameplay.
So history buffs will be happy when they discover which units found their way into the OOB or into the scenarios, while light wargamers can (now with the new rules version) enjoy approachable rules and a dice-fest. Whether both factions will be happy with this combination, is certainly a matter of taste.
Playing this game solitaire has one advantage – you can stack all blocks on top of each other in one hex without worrying about Fog of War. This will minimize the problems with the crowded map.
You could also stack your blocks this way in a 2-player game, of course, but playing with 2 players and without Fog of War completely annihilates the natural advantages of a block game and would result in a counter game with very clumsy wooden counters.
Except for the missing FoW option in a Solitaire game, you could certainly play this game on your own. Many people do.
We prefer playing against a human opponent, but we don’t see any reasons why you shouldn’t play BITE as solitaire game if you enjoy this type of game.
Can be Compared to…
…East Front II by Columbia Games (and of course, the original East Front). This game is also a block game, also hex based and also deals with the Russian Campaign, so it comes to mind quite naturally. There are many similarities between both games regarding gameplay mechanics and the combat system, but East Front doesn’t suffer as much from the crowded map syndrome as BITE does.
In addition, games that come to mind (regarding the topic) are L2′s “The Russian Campaign” as well as the Barbarossa parts of “Totaler Krieg“. Both are hex-and-counter-consims, however, so you can only compare them regarding the question “how is the Russian Campaign depicted or simulated in these games”? Both games are, due to their nature as consims, more simulative and more detailed (and probably too complex for the fan of “lighter” consims who may be attracted by BITE).
Well… to me, “Blocks in the East” is a two-pointed sword. On the one hand, I really want to like the game because the rules are cool, I love block games, there are many tough decisions to be made during gameplay and the game offers a variety of options regarding tactics and your overall strategy.
The support by the designer is phantastic and it was exemplary how fast he fixed the rules problems from rules 2.2 and how well he responded to input and suggestions regarding the wording of some rules or the addition of supplementary material like the terrain chart and setup charts, which culminated in the publication of Charts 3.0.
With rules 3.0 and charts 3.0, the problems of former rules editions have gone and the rules are now very streamlined and comprehensive. Downloading them before your first game is a must, though, if you don’t want to make it harder for you to get into the game because the game box contains an older rules revision (with some very ambivalent wordings and some serious rules issues which have now been fixed).
But a serious issue – which cannot be fixed by rules or charts – is, that I have serious problems of playing this game to the best of my abilities. I love complex consims and I played some other Barbarossa games or scenarios so far, including Totaler Krieg 2 and the classic and new edition of “The Russian Campaign”. I’m accustomed to planning my moves in advance (which is a must in any wargame where you cannot play “from turn to turn”), but when playing BITE, I always felt hampered by the practical gameplay which prevented me from playing to my full potential.
It may be only me (or us, since Andreas reported similar issues), and we are seriously wondering why no other reviews mention this aspect of the game, but I have problems keeping an overview over my units and over the terrain.
I’m simply not able to keep track of which unit is in which hex and what kind of terrain is in which hex. The map is so extremely overcrowded that we often were not able to distinguish which units stood in which hex, and only saw a black-and-red-sea in front of us. It was highly impractical to lift certain blocks in order to take a look at the terrain below (something that’s vital when you want to plot your moves in advance), and often we were not sure whether the opponent (or oneself) accidentally misplaced blocks from both sides after conducting movement or checking the terrain below. I don’t know how to play this game in an elegant, smooth fashion, I’m struggling with the blocks and I’m still looking for a solution of how to keep track of my own units which tend to disappear into the red and black block sea.
Since I have these serious practical issues, I always felt that I also couldn’t use the power of the optional rules to my full advantage (I would have loved to make more reserve movement, because the tactical importance of these opportunities isn’t lost to me), but I shied away from using this rule too often simply because I couldn’t tell where my armor units were and where they would be in the next turn.
That’s really sad because, from the theoretical side, I like BITE very much.
I’m happy with the great support and the ongoing improving and streamlining of the rules which are quite solid now. There are so many interesting options and the game constantly forces hard decision-making of where to spend the PP – for research (a higher Tech Level is invaluable because it impacts movement and combat), factory buildings (you can never have enough PP) or repairing units at the front lines and moving them around by rail strategically (short-term effect, but you need strong units at the front!).
So while the game itself and the rules are certainly appealing, the practical application is seriously hampered by the massive amount of blocks in too small hexes. At least if you want to play with upright blocks and the Fog of War option against another human opponent (in a solitaire game, you could probably help yourself by choosing a different stacking system).
One aspect I disliked was the combat resolution by throwing tons of dice – it strongly reminded me of Axis & Allies (where I hated resolving the combat in typical overcrowded areas like Karelia or Central Europe by rolling for 30+ units). Combat in BITE is, since it can be fought over many rounds in many steps which all require dice rolling, too repetitive and too long for me. I’m a friend of combat odds and combat result tables, and rolling one die and getting a result is much more thrilling for me than rolling 100 dice during the course of one battle. But that’s a personal matter of taste, I know that there are players out there who enjoy a dice-fest and love outracing their opponent in throwing the dice. There are people who hate calculating odds and looking up results in a CRT. That’s okay, they will certainly enjoy rolling so many dice in order to reduce their opponent’s units!
Last but not least, I’m not too happy with the two charts which must be consulted during Movement and Combat. To me, the layout and structure of these tables (the Tech and Development Table and the Terrain Modifiers table) is not optimal. It’s more cumbersome than necessary to look up a simple value for Movement or combat, and to hide vital information in fine print adds to this fact. There could certainly be a more comprehensive and structured way to arrange the information for Movement and Combat. The “short summary” chart on Chart 3.0 helps a lot, but all in all, these two vital charts are not very intuitive and it takes too long to check for the information you need in a given situation.
I cannot recommend the game without a warning. From the rules and game engine perspective, BITE is a solid block game portraying the Russian Campaign during World War II. The game contains many aspects of this campaign, like a well-researched OOB, production and research, maneuvering tactics, air recon while offering the Fog of War only provided by a block game. With rules 3.0 and charts 3.0 you shouldn’t have serious problems in learning the game. And if you encounter a question or problem while learning the game, you should not hesitate to contact the designer (he’s also active in the BGG forum), and you will get your answer fast! There is even the chance that your question will find its way into the next rules update, so the support is perfect and exemplary.
But in my opinion, the gameplay itself is problematic due to the too-overcrowded map which had such a serious impact on me that I was hampered in planning my strategies and following my long-term strategical goals. I will not exclude the fact that this may be an individual problem not all players have (many reviews are enthusiastic and positive without mentioning this fact at all, something, we were really wondering about). But we had these problems while playing the game, and we experimented a lot with various stacking methods – without much success, so we have to share this impression in our review. So be at least aware that you may encounter problems with keeping track of units and terrain.
Apart from my warnings, the game itself is very newbie friendly. The designer posted various tutorial videos on BGG which will teach you how to conduct the different phases of the game. You will get much support in learning the game, so you don’t have to be an experienced grognard if you want to learn BITE.
Not a game for everyone, but if you love intense dice combat and if you don’t have a problem with crowded maps, and are interested in a block-hex game dealing with the Russian Campaign, give it a try!
Andreas Ludwig’s Conclusions
Blocks in the East, that’s a difficult review to write indeed – because, for me, unfortunately it’s more “Blocks in the way”… As was already mentioned in the review, we were quite excited about a new Russian Campaign game using blocks when the news about BITE came up and the idea to have a consim with deep level gameplay and the typical Fog of War aspect of the ‘block design’ was something that got us interested.
When the copy arrived, this interest was therefore high and we were eager to get on learning the game because learning a wargame for us is actually part of the fun – to see how the design is supposed to work, which aspects are covered, which are abstracted in a clever way, which are left out – and for what reasons. Why did the designer do this or didn’t do that, what was the reason in his specific design decisions etc. so we can compare it with other games we already played and own.
Personally that was the first disappointment for me – there are no designer’s notes in the rule book. There’s no explanation of why specific mechanics are used and what certain parts of the game design are supposed to portray – there are some historical notes and tactical notes here and there but nothing about the overall design philosophy. Of course not every wargame has such designer’s notes, but for me to have them is always a plus – I cannot only follow the design approach this way, but often I can find a solution to a problem that may show up because of a hole in the rules. If you know why a game was designed this or that way, you might find an answer in the designer’s notes that is missing in the rules. Unfortunately, BITE has no such notes included – I think it might be a good idea for Emanuele Santandrea to write down his thoughts on his design philosophy and to have them available for download.
Without the explanations about the design and with using the rules that were available at the time we started to play and learn the game, I personally had no fun at all learning it. Too many things not mentioned, too many rules strangely worded or even downright broken as a game concept (e.g. the Air Recon rules didn’t work in the 2.2 rules version, so we had to leave them out – disappointing because I love to have many options in a wargame).
However, we soon learned that the designer is really enthusiastic – not only as a game designer, but also as the owner of a wargame company putting customer service above all else – so due to our personal contact with him we could solve some serious issues for ourselves, as we were learning the game, and for him to improve the rules all in almost no time because he was quick with responses and open to ideas to improve the rule book.
That was a good thing and my interest in the game started to grow again because of this – but I have to say at least as a warning to future game releases of VentoNuovo Games, BITE was not ready at the time of the release, so playing the game for the purposes of a review instead became part of a series of playtesting sessions to make the game actually work (starting with the set up issues, when you don’t know what goes where, that’s always a bad sign). Since it was the first game publication of the company, this is both – understandable because you have to learn the ropes and a problem, because a gamer might not want to buy another game in the future then. I hope Emanuele Santandrea will take his time to polish the rules for his next games before they are released.
The current rules 3.0 are fine, as was mentioned already, so there should be no problems for all those who want to learn the game now.
Although I can understand that there are advantages for an entire game series to have one set of rules (and I suppose that’s the intention with the “Blocks in the…” series in the end) it’s making things really difficult for the new player to have so many details in the rules that don’t belong to the game you just bought and want to play. So you read the rules and not only have to remember them but you must also consciously ‘forget’ other rules that you came across, because they are not relevant for the game in front of you – a designer should try to ease the learning process – not to make it more complicated than necessary.
When we were finally ‘in’ the game and actually playing it, there were still some design choices I didn’t understand or where the game somehow felt at odds with scale or time portrayed. For example, given the scale of the game, I don’t see why Finnish snipers get a bonus if they defend in a forest – BITE is grand-operational, so in my opinion a ‘sniper bonus’ seems out-of-place, the designer even says it is strategical level (which I don’t agree with), but this step up in the ‘zoom level’ would make the impact of ‘Snipers in the forest’ even less convincing. Regarding time, a turn in BITE is a month and given the cost of rebuilding steps in the game, which is an expensive process, I have my problems that artillery loses one step each time it fires and the rules say this is to show the depletion of ammunition. Artillery on the Eastern Front was used extensively in rolling barrages that went over the frontlines as a crushing wall of fire so this depletion and costly rebuilding (PP that you’ll miss when it comes to the other units you need) of the shells in the game feels weird to me.
Same thing with the fact that ground units have the same movement points, infantry and tanks move the same speed. Even if these unit types ‘upgrade’ to a higher tech level, they have the same MPs – Infantry tech level 1 has 3 MP, as has a tank tech level 1. If both go up one level they add one MP, so a tech level 2 tank is faster than a tech level 1 Infantry, but as fast as a tech level 2 Infantry. I would say perhaps the tech level 2 infantry unit is a mechanized inf unit so it is faster, but still even a tech level 1 tank should be faster than a tech level 1 infantry – one month is not enough to even out the differences regarding the movement abilities of time/distance of these units. Game aspects like these are things that just don’t feel right to me and I keep on wondering why this is so and not done in a different way when playing the game.
Apart from such details – which you may have a problem with like I do or not, depending on your view regarding such points – the game suffers a lot because of the chosen design as a block game using this specific scale. The main review already mentioned it several times that we had serious problems to actually play the game because of practical reasons. I cannot help but to state this again since I had my blood pressure up when so many times I couldn’t figure out how to move my units into an already overcrowded hex or trying to get the units out of the hex to set the battle up somewhere else on the map and again knocking over the blocks in the adjacent hexes – sometimes revealing the units of my opponent this way… That is frustrating and not really fun and since I always look for elegance in game designs I am sensitive to such show-stoppers. I mean there are games like in IR2 where the stacks can get really high and you have to be careful to not knock them over when you look into them – but it is at least doable with some careful use of the tweezers. In BITE the map is so full that it’s almost impossible not to cause a chaos, since the action is at the front lines and they are at a constant flux (as they should be in an Eastern front scenario, so the game has that right), so you have to arrange the blocks constantly. There are many battles to fight and you need to remove the units from the battle hexes to set them up in a combat area, you cannot avoid to move and remove these blocks all the time and you are always in danger to screw the plan you have in mind because after some battles it’s often even not clear anymore who stood where.
You have to take the blocks out of the hexes to see the terrain, then set them back to consider further options, then to move them according to your plan etc.. all the while you try to remember which hex had what kind of terrain below all the blocks because you can not see the map anymore. This is slowing down the game to a crawl sometimes and I simply cannot see why blocks were used in this game. And not to forget all the other stuff that you have to put on the map, partisan markers, factories and barrels…and the latter are a bad choice in my opinion. I don’t like things in my wargames that roll… because what can roll will roll and will roll away…
Some issues could have been easily avoided, for example set up would be much easier if the hexes on the (beautiful!) map were numbered to have a clear reference, but for whatever reason they are not.
BITE would be an interesting game because it does some things really right (especially the Sequence of Play and the different part of the combat phase is what I like and the production point idea is done in a way that you really have to plan ahead), but in order to achieve its potential, I have to say it would be better using counters.
I love block games for the FoW aspect, only ‘block designs’ can achieve this level of ‘guessing’ in a wargame and avoid the ‘all knowing player syndrome’ without sacrificing elegant gameplay. But BITE is not able to combine FoW with smooth gameplay, the map is too small and it offers too many terrain details to consider in your moves that are completely hidden by the blocks most of the time. Even a map with double the seize of the hexes would be difficult to play on, I’m afraid, and of course the map is already quite large, so a bigger one would probably not fit on the table the average wargamer has in his home. Or using area movement with less detailed terrain features, so that you can at least see the terrain type while you look at the map.
The game has many options and generally allows for a great deal of strategy in your gameplay, both sides play differently and so there’s a lot of replay value here, but the sheer size of the game makes it neccessary that the design approach is about helping the player to actually to be able to use the offered options and so anything that slows down the game or gets in the way should be avoided.
In my opinion, the combination of a very detailed map (which would work fine in a traditional hex ‘n counter game) with so many blocks and so many steps of movement and combat is not working. That’s my major point of criticism, and for me it’s really a show stopper. I can live with some design aspects I don’t get given the time and scale of the game, I think the rules and the charts are now fully working and there should be no problem of getting into the game, I absolutely think that the game offers some really nice ideas and the support by the designer is outstanding. Personally I don’t like the use of the gazillion dice, that’s again something that slows down the game in a way it should not, the dice fest combat gets more in the way than it helps, but that is open to debate based on personal preferences or ‘taste’. We didn’t like it in A&A and we don’t like it in BITE, but others may disagree.
Besides the good and the bad we mentioned in the main review and the aspects I stressed here in my personal verdict, I now have to answer the question: is this a good game you should get and will I play it again?
Yes, I think there’s a good game in the BITE box and you should get it if the Eastern Front topic is something you are interested in.. and if you are a very patient gamer without too fat fingers so you can handle the ‘Blocks in the Way’ issues the game has. Don’t get it if you are looking for the typical block game with FoW and elegant and quick game mechanics. BITE is an interesting game despite the blocks, not because of them…
Will I play it again? Yes definitely… if the designer makes counter sheets available for it! I’m sure, it would work much better as a traditional hex ‘n counter game, and I could concentrate on strategies instead of trying to handle game components. Since the gameplay would be much smoother and quicker with counters, I could even live with the many dice to roll. Still, a CRT would be the much better option, however – then BITE would be a fast going game with many interesting options.
In the current form, for me it is hard to recommend, because it is a design that stands itself in the way: the idea of having a deep game that’s easy to play is foiled by the use of blocks on a detailed hex map. So only those who are willing to deal with the practical gameplay problems will discover the good game that’s to be found in the box.