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Review: Totaler Krieg (DG)

Posted by Denny Koch on May 6, 2010

Game: Totaler Krieg

Publisher: Decision Games
Published in: 1999
Designers: Alan Emrich, Steve “Kos” Kosakowski
Contents: 560 mounted, full color die cut counters; 153 Strategic Option cards; 10 assorted Player Aid sheets; 2 Books (Rules, Examples, Dice of Decision, Scenarios & Notes); 2 two-sided 34″ x 22″ maps; 2 dice d6 & Storage bags
Era: World War II (ETO)

HFC Game-O-Meter: B


Our Rating (1-10):

Graphic Presentation: 8
Rules: 9
Playability: 9
Replay Value:10

Overall Rating: 9

PRO Great rules, very interesting card mechanics, smart politics system, entire PTO, what if-scenarios
CONTRA Boring box design

A massive Russian front

Introduction

“Totaler Krieg!” is a strategic-level consim designed by Alan Emrich. The game is based on the older game Krieg!” (1996) and is an interesting combination of a hex and counter consim with a card-driven mechanic, similar to Empire of the Sun. Politics, air- and naval combat are abstracted in a very elegant fashion. The game is meant to be a ‘panzer pusher’ that means it concentrates on land warfare in the entire European Theatre of War (including North Africa) and therefore it doesn’t have a detailed air and naval sub-game.

Despite the fact that the complexity level is quite high, the game itself is very accessible with a good (‘living’) rulebook. It’s possible to play the Standard Campaign (=the entire World War II), a historical campaign where the Option Cards are played in historical order, and alternative scenarios with communist Germany or czarist Russia. In addition, the game offers scenarios which are ranged from short tournament scenarios to very long and complex scenarios, for example Operation Barbarossa which depicts the war in Russia from 1941-1945.

Graphic Presentation

The game box

Unfortunately, the box design is somewhat boring – in contrast to the well designed map and attractive counter artworks and Option Cards. The card board box is large and functional, printed with some black-and-white-pictures from World War II. I would have preferred a more modern box design, this one looks somewhat retro and distracts from a very modern and very attractive game inside.

The counter artworks are clear and informative

Components

The two large maps are looking great and offer much detail, for example terrain depictions with lots of information (names of rivers, reference locations or small towns). The counters are printed with informative clear symbols and are very well done and the whole concept seems to be well-thought-out by the designers.

The same is true for the other components of the game box, such as the Force Pools and Player Aid Sheets. All important boxes, the turn track and charts are printed on the map, making it possible to play the game without ever making notes on paper or without being forced to remember any past events of the game. This allows a very comfortable and smooth gameplay and the concentration on strategies and the game itself.

Despite the boring box cover design, I really love the graphic presentation of the game.

Rules

The rules included in the game are not up-to-date because the rulebook is a “Living Rulebook” where updates, errata, and clarifications were added over the time. This is not a problem: The 50-page-rulebook is available for download as “Living Rules” on the TK! Homepage (Word document) – this guarantees for an updated version including all current errata and clarifications.

The layout and the structure of the rulebook are clear and comprehensive – once you understood where to look when you need an answer.  The Rules are well-formulated without leaving too much space for “black holes” or sloppy sentences.  There are many examples and notes that explain important aspects of the game. In addition, you get a Reference Book, which offers additional explanations and examples (also available for download). It also explains  the most crucial concept of the game: the use of Option Cards.

A 38-page-Scenario Booklet (also available as a “living” version) includes scenarios from all European fronts for 2-3 players and with different game lengths from 5 turns up to 50 or more.

In my opinion, the TK! rulebook is one of the best and most careful formulated rule books ever – and allows comfortable access to the game. I definitely recommend buying the “Player’s Guide” (sold separately) which contains tons of additional information and strategic suggestions for the game, but is useful only for more experienced gamers. You should at least have played one entire Standard Campaign game to make use of the precious information offered in this guide.

Playability

TK! is a great 2-player game... and even better with 3 players

Playability is really smooth because all relevant information is always displayed on the map. No need to take any side-notes or to remember too many things. The game has “no memory“, everything is always recorded on the map.

A good beginner’s choice is playing the 3 Kriegfest-Scenarios which give an easy introduction to the core game mechanics in small portions. Because of the good rulebook, you get a quick grasp of the mechanics such as movement, combat and supply. The true challenge is to make the best of the political opportunities which are hidden in this game and to get an idea about the value of the different Option Cards. The map and the counters provide optimal information and guarantee a fast and fluent gameplay once you understood the core mechanics. To actually master the  use of Option Cards is another thing, though 😉

There’s not much downtime in TK!, but some turns in middle game can be quite long, especially at the Eastern Front in Russia when both Germany and Russia throw tons of units into the battle. The Western Allied player’s choices and possibilities are limited until the US enter the game, which can take some time (depending on the German player who is the one to start the “Total War”). But this fact never bored me when playing the Western Allies since the gameplay is tense and interesting to watch while you ponder over your own moves.

Sequence of Play

The game follows a stringent Sequence of Play. Player turns alternate: Axis, Western Allies, Soviets.

When playing the entire war (Standard Campaign), the game starts with Limited War – the Axis player decides whether to go West first (historical) or East first. Once both fronts are at war and the USA enter play, Total War breaks out. As indicated by the name, players suffer certain restrictions during Limited War.

1. Seasonal Victory Point Check

At the beginning of a new turn, players check for victory and calculate the current Strategic Victory level. Victory depends on the number of strategic hexes a player controls and certain other events and location of control markers (Logistics,  neutral states, devastation, Surface Riders, ObK etc.).

2. Seasonal Phase

This phase isn’t played each game turn, only when a new season begins.

The seasonal phase begins with an Option card segment where each player secretly decides on the strategy for the next season and chooses one of their Option Cards. Option Cards provide events, troops, politics, or other options. Many cards depend on playing another card first or have other prerequisites, so that choosing a  card requires careful planning. If a player chose an invalid option card, he is forced to play the season without any card – which can be fatal.

The Option Card is chosen for next season in advance while the Option Card for the current season (which was chosen last season) is revealed now. Since cards are chosen in advance, things could have changed by now, rendering a once important card pointless or making the owner wish he had chosen another card. Planning your Option cards is the high art of  Totaler Krieg!

Players then get seasonal reinforcements and replacements which are provided by the current Option Card and by country specific reinforcement rules.

3. Initial Administrative Phase

This is the “politics” phase of  Totaler Krieg! Political events on Option Cards are resolved now. Then, players may move their convoys.

4. Air & Naval Segment

Players place air and naval units in their respective support boxes. Since air and naval combat are abstracted, there are no specific named air or naval units on the board, only markers in support spaces. Support units can contest and claim superiority now, forcing opposing units into the Delay box and gaining a time advantage over the opponent.

5. Organization Segment

Players build infantry and tank armies from smaller units. They can combine and break down steps, and fortify positions with fortresses. An average unit consists of 3 steps but can lose steps during combat. Units can be voluntarily broken down into smaller units with lesser steps (which is sometimes important, for example because of the stacking limit or for taking step losses) and for movement purposes.

6. Operational Movement Phase

Units can move according to their movement value and terrain. Supply, ZOC (Zones of Control) and stacking limits are very important here, and units cannot move in any way they wish. In addition, there are political restrictions whether a unit may enter a country or hex or move together with another allied unit. Last but not least, weather, rails and roads have impact on movement as well.

Players also can conduct beachhead landings, but these are very complicated and require much work in advance and perfect logistics in order to make them work. Amphibious movement and Naval transport of ground troops is conducted in this phase as well.

7. Combat Phase

First, Players can conduct “Blitz combat”, if their current Option Card was a “Blitz Card”. They can make airdrops and use certain combat advantages. On the other hand, Blitz is limited to good weather conditions; a player cannot blitz into mud hexes and only Russian, Swedish, Finnish, Partisans, and SS units can blitz into snow hexes.

After a possible Blitz combat, the regular combat follows. Units declare attacks and can be supported by Headquarters. Combat results are rolled on a Combat Result Table with combat shifts for both sides, for example based on weather, air support and terrain.

There are three types of combat results:

  • Ar1: The attacking force must retreat. If this is not possible for the entire force, it must take 1 step loss
  • EX: Entire attacking force must retreat or take 1 step loss. If attacker takes a step loss, defending force must retreat or take 1 step loss.
  • DR1,2,3: Entire defending force must retreat indicated number of hexes. When retreat is not possible, remaining hexes must be taken as step losses.

Exceptions are units in cities which may choose whether to retreat or take step losses. Retreat rules are complex and an important part of a player’s strategy – because it is important to close in on the enemy, to cut off retreat paths, and to force them into positions without supply in order to weaken their units.

After the defender retreated, the attacker may advance into now empty positions.

8. Reserve Movement Phase

Now the player conducts movement behind their front lines. Units without enemy contact (i.e. not in an enemy ZOC) may be moved. Movement points are limited here and movement is more restricted than during Operational Movement. In contrast to Operation Movement, units don’t need to be in supply to be moved.

9. Final Administrative Phase

Now players can declare war on other countries, following strict politics rules. Minor, former neutral countries, can become active and join the Axis or Allies. Truces can be changed.

10. Conditional Event Segment

Many game events and politics trigger other events. These are checked now. Units can be interned, countries can become liberated, occupied, or conquered. An Axis coup can happen and countries can be re-activated. In addition, there are certain events, for example Paris Fortress or Their Finest Hour which are triggered when the conditions are met.

If an Option Card contains a conditional event, it is resolved now.

Game Turn Interphase

After all three parties concluded their turns,  players roll for units in their Delay Boxes to determine when these units will return to the game. The Turn Record Track Marker is advanced.

Replay Value

Always tempting: Operation Sealion, the invasion of Great Britain

Extremely high – no 2 TK! games are alike. The countless possibilities for political influence and the pressure of making political and economic decisions allow for a large variety of strategies. A main reason for this is the Option Card Mechanics. Should you be really bored after playing the Standard Campaign Game (which is most unlikely 😉 and all scenarios, you could try the “Dice of Decision” variant which changes the historical conditions which led to WWII – a Czaristic Russia or Communist Germany, for example, or some weird alliances.

TK! is a game which invites the player to try out historic and ahistorical variants and to search for answers to the classic “what – if” questions. Why not change the course of history, even while playing alone, and try things like an invasion on England (Operation Sealion) and to find answers on questions such as “Why didn’t they do this or that historically and what was the main problem?”

Even the Standard Campaign allows for the traditional opening (“West First”) and an alternative opening (“East First”). The East First variant is somewhat problematic, though, and has some balancing issues, so most of the time, you will play the West First variant, attacking Poland, Scandinavia, the Benelux countries and finally France.

The Russian Player can interfere or even use the Axis player’s attacks to their advantage, securing their slice of the pie from Poland, Romania, or Finland while maintaining peace with the Axis due to the Hitler-Stalin-Pact.


Creativity

Some Option Cards are quite tricky and must be played very carefully

TK! offers a really nice mechanic: The “Option Cards” which drive the political events, war production and diplomatic incidents throughout the game. This cards are the clue to Totaler Krieg!. Even if you are a crack in the game mechanics and know clever ways how to push your tank corps by heart – the crucial key to victory is to know your Option Cards and how and when to use them. If you are new to the game, you don’t really know the impact of these cards, but once you play the Standard Campaign with free card choice, you begin to realize how dependent your decisions are on politics, economics, war efforts, production, and your previous decisions during the war.

Sometimes you have to pay a really high price for a promising future and this can hurt. It’s really interesting to see how long it really takes to prepare a big event like an invasion and how fragile your long-term-strategies are. It’s really thrilling to watch your opponents reveal their sinister plans by showing their current Option Cards and to know that your own choice for the next season was the worst thing on Earth and a true disaster.

Option Cards in consims are not new and were surely not invented for Totaler Krieg! , many other games utilize a card-driven mechanic (for example Empire of the Sun), but the card system works very well in TK! and is generally very well thought-out.

The most creative aspect of TK! is the abstraction of politics, air and naval combat and transport, though. The game strictly focuses on land warfare (“Panzer pushing”), and all abstractions work great and use very smart mechanics.

Simulation Value

TK! simulates land warfare and concentrates on infantry and armor combat. It uses an abstract model for Sea/Air combat which works pretty smooth. The game  wants to simulate land combat in Europe and that’s exactly what it does: all important details are included, such as terrain and supply and after a while you begin to realize how many realistic details are worked  into the combat result tables and core mechanics.

All important land armies and units are there  and easily recognized by their unit designation. The Option Cards include historical events and information and provide for a quite accurate depiction of World War II. The simulation value of Totaler Krieg! is high, compared to lighter wargames, but certain aspects of the war are abstracted.

Nevertheless, the game offers enough chrome and spice to satisfy the history buff who will discover many important events, units, and correlations of World War II.

Solitaire Playability

You can play TK! solitaire, but I would recommend to do this only to study historical situations or to search for alternative strategies and to answer “what-if” questions.

The most interesting thing about TK! is the Option Card element and in not knowing what your opponents will reveal next season. Most fun is a 3-player game when even the Wallies and Soviets cannot cooperate as they wish to (their possibilities for cooperation are limited by the rules because Stalin wasn’t really a fan of the US and UK historically, either). If you play a 2-player game, one player will control both the Allies and the Soviets and this leads to an automatic coordination of both factions.

Can be compared to:

You can compare the core mechanics of TK! with games such as Advanced Third Reich or World in Flames, but in my opinion TK! offers the best and clearest rulebook. The game mechanics and card driven game system is quite similar to Empire of the Sun.

“Newbie-friendliness”:

TK! may be more accessible than A3R or WiF, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a beginner who didn’t play a strategic consim before. The conditional events and complex correlations within the politics system are too much to remember for a newbie and we made the experience that new players (who just did their first steps into the consim world, coming from Axis and Allies and other light wargames) were overwhelmed by the complexity and the things they had to remember during the game.

Players who are interested in playing a larger scale consim should start with The Russian Campaign which gives a good introduction into basic concepts, for example ZOC, supply, terrain, movements, weather, and Combat Results Tables but it less complicated overall.

The TK! rulebook is very comprehensive, so that players with some consim experience under their belt should have no problem with the game. Experienced consim players who know TRC, or EotS will enjoy the tidy rulebook and elegant mechanics.

Denny Koch’s résumé

In my opinion, TK is one of the most attractive consims. The rules are written in a clear and friendly language. The game is very accessible, although it still remains quite complex and needs some practice and experience to be mastered.

The core mechanics are not too difficult, but the crucial concept is mastering the Option Cards and the political background. I guess the Option Card aspect is a matter of taste – I like it, but I can imagine that some people will dislike this concept and don’t want to control their political affairs, war production and diplomatic incidents by choosing cards. I like the element of surprise when my opponent reveals their cards and much of the fun results in making the wrong decisions when choosing your card for the next season 😉 I like the tension when choosing my card while recognizing how dependent my decisions are on my previous decisions and plans and how history punishes me when I’m too greedy and play the “big toys” too early in the game – to discover that you will have to pay a price for even the smallest decision you make.

The core mechanics are well-done and classic-style with all well-known traditional concepts of supply, ZOC and all these little things needed in a strategic simulation and then some more, as the elegant abstractions and deeply interlaced politics.

We laminated our maps and glued them to wooden boards and I always enjoy sitting at the game table and looking at the counters and the map for hours and hours while thinking about the situation in Europe. During the game you never lose the general idea about what’s going on and what happened or will happen, because this game has “no memory” and the map offers a perfect overview of the current situation at any time of the game without forcing you to write something down or to remember too many things (besides the rules and the connections between certain events and event “triggers”).

You can re-create WWII historically or you can try some weird alternative strategies and ideas. The game system even tolerates some mistakes because – as the designer states – the game mechanics are indestructible by rules mistakes. Even if you get some rules wrong and play some aspects incorrectly in the beginning, you will get a good game. We involuntarily tried this when we were newbies by getting the ZOC rules completely wrong, and Alan Emrich was right – it was fun nevertheless 😉

Montgomery, defending North Africa against Rommel

One minor negative aspect is that Great Britain (Wallies) is incapable of much action for a very long time if Germany declines to start the Total War, delaying it as much as possible. The British player is limited to watching France fall and to reinforce Gibraltar, North Africa and the Orient, but this represents the historical events. There is not too much to do for the British player until the US enter the war. In one of my last games Germany as a strategy literally dried up Great Britain by delaying the US entry into the year 1943. This results in long breaks for the British player who is forced to watch the German and Russian players fighting each other with their big toys.

Germany and Russia own tons of good stuff right from the beginning. Russia has an immense replacement rate and Germany has really strong units. TK! is one of the games where it is really FUN to play Russia – in too many games, Russia is only a victim that will finally get smashed – in TK! it’s a really huge country and really hard to conquer. Believe me, you don’t envy Germany who has to take on Russia in this game.

It’s comfortable to play TK! with 2 players, but it’s really FUN to play it with 3 players because Russia and the Western Allies cannot coordinate their actions as they would do in a 2-player-game.

Totaler Krieg! does a good job in simulating land warfare and uses a good abstraction model for air and naval combat and an amazing politics and diplomacy model and – which is most important – a great support is given by the designers themselves! It’s fun and full of surprises with a high replay value.

TK! is definitely one of my all-time favorites.

Our rating (1-10):

Graphic Presentation: 8
Rules: 9
Playability: 9
Replay Value: 10


Overall Rating: 9

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