05th Sep2018

‘Hitler’s Reich’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

hit-r-box

When I first decided that I’d like to begin covering war games, I didn’t entirely know what to expect. I was unable to escape the feeling that these games were inherently complex and unappealing to play and it was a real surprise to learn that most war games follow a certain logic that, whilst sometimes complex, can be learned and taught more quickly than I ever imagined. Of course, some games are naturally more straightforward than others, like Hitler’s Reich, which is a brand new abstract simulation of 1941-1945 in the European Theatre.

Hitler’s Reich was designed by Mark McLaughlin and Fred Schachter and is published by GMT Games. The game is most certainly best with two players who each control one of the opposing (Axis or Allied) forces, although a detailed automated mode for solo players is included, as are some basic rules on how to play in teams with three or four players. It’s worth noting that whilst the Soviet and Italian parts of their respective alliances are represented by specific cards within the game, the actual structure itself does not give them a distinct turn, so the game is never truly more than a two player game masquerading as multiplayer.

Not that I’m complaining though, because I think the most appealing thing about Hitler’s Reich is how quickly it can be setup and played, once you’ve spent a bit of time to learn it. The game describes two main starting scenarios, one of which is a longer scenario that begins in 1941, whilst the other represents the pivotal events of 1944 and offers a much more brief experience. For both scenarios, the game manual includes a reasonably clear and detailed setup instruction, but you may not actually need it after you’ve played the game a few times.

The 1941 scenario, in particular, looks especially Spartan to begin with, simply because most of the key information is printed on the board. Hitler’s Reich doesn’t use stacks of tokens or even cubes to represent standing armies, although coloured disks are placed on the map to show changes in the control of an area in comparison to whatever the default would be. It’s also possible for players to fortify locations with hexagonal pieces or to place fleets on the board – in both cases, combat relating to sea or land regions that have been upgraded will be affected.

In respect to how Hitler’s Reich is won or lost, there are several possible scenarios. A couple of these relate to either instant (or imminent) victory scenarios that will end the game early, whilst no matter what else happens, the game will end in 1945, with a winner decided based on overall control. If the Allied player ever controls Berlin and can hold it for one whole turn, she will win. Likewise, if the Axis player can hold Moscow and London for a turn, she wins. Another (and in my experience more common) victory scenario is to reduce your opponents hand size to zero, or to have a hand size of twelve whilst your opponent has one of three or less.

Given that Hitler’s Reich is so heavily focused on card usage, hand size is a key factor both thematically and mechanically. In terms of theme, the hand size represents the relative economic, political and production strength of the belligerents, so in the 1941 scenario, the Axis begin with eight cards and the Allies begin with six. Depending on slightly randomised event cards that are drawn at the beginning of the game, this can actually swing a further two cards in the Axis favour, which really demonstrates the dire straits that the British (and their recently mobilised US allies) found themselves in.

Mechanically, cards drive everything in Hitler’s Reich, so a reduction in hand size can have a material impact on your plans, options and odds of winning the war. In addition to playing event cards that affect hand size, another way to do so is by taking control of Production Centres (such as Romania) that were originally controlled by the opposing player. In doing so, their war effort is reduced whilst your own is increased, which makes those locations quite key to attack or defend accordingly.

Before I move away from the subject of cards, there are two kinds in Hitler’s Reich; conflict cards and event cards. Event cards can be either Allied or Axis only, or Allied and Axis, which means either side can use them. Uniquely among games that I’ve played, the players are freely able to search their own event deck and the shared deck for events that they would like to play or take into their own private set. Attempting to play or claim an event is one of the many actions in the game. Alongside event related actions, players may also make a basic land or sea attack and reorganise their hand of conflict cards (effectively allowing a mulligan) among other things.

For any attack or to play an event, players will use conflict cards to decide the outcome. Both Allied and Axis forces receive a deck that contains an identical set of numbered cards, each of which has a different strength and most of which have a unique ability like adding a reroll, or reducing the enemy combat value due to misdirection. The Axis deck contains German cards that win all ties and Italian cards that lose all ties, whilst the Allied deck contains both Soviet and Western Ally cards. In the event that a player wants to use or claim an event card on her turn, she will search for it, place it on the table, then declare her intent to use it and how – usually to attack another location.

The players then play one conflict card and one or more event cards (from previous engagements) and then roll at least three dice each. The total of all cards and dice is then compared and modifiers are taken into account. As an example, there may be rerolls to take or the introduction of actual additional dice, depending on which cards were played. If the attacker is successful then the outcome of the event is followed and depending on the event card type, that card will potentially be flipped for reuse later, or it might be placed back into the box and is considered out of play.

Now, I’ve written and rewritten this section several times and yet it still seems convoluted to describe, which is probably because it is. In practice, each turn takes about thirty seconds to one minute, yet the instruction manual for Hitler’s Reich makes quite a meal of describing the flow of card play, particularly where events are concerned. I think this is because it’s quite unusual for the decks to be searchable (rather than random) and the various ways in which events might be used, reused or permanently removed is also a bit of a challenge. Actually coming to terms with what event you should play and when is strategic challenge for sure, but it’s also a rules challenge that I wish had been streamlined somehow.

Regardless, between the board layout at the beginning of the game and some of the factors that I haven’t mentioned yet (Blitzkrieg actions, the presence of big push bonuses and of the pact between Russia and Germany) as well as the seeded decks that give Germany an advantage in the early war, Hitler’s Reich presents a very interesting historical structure that I found very compelling. Thematic cards like the Wolfpack or the introduction of jet fighters can be played outside of their historical sequence without throwing off the realism, whilst the key events like Operation Barbarossa or Overlord offer just the right amount of additional advantage at just the right time, without often unbalancing the game.

The game uses the reshuffling of the conflict cards to mark the march of time, so there is a certain inevitability to Hitler’s Reich which I also like. The box advertises five minute setup (which is true of the 1941 scenario) and two hours play time (which is true of the 1944 scenario) but I think it could also get materially faster as the players become more familiar with it. I found it a much harder job to explain Hitler’s Reich than I think they did to actually play it and so in the end, I gave up on attempting to explain the cards in detail and found it easier just to work with open information during the first few turns of a game with any new player.

Hitler’s Reich is the first war game I’ve played in a while and alongside it, I’m also testing Cataclysm (another GMT product) which looks like it will weigh in at probably two to three times the length of Hitler’s Reich. There’s an advantage to offering a more brief experience that doesn’t compromise on historical theme or quality and I think Hitler’s Reich does that well. Sadly, it doesn’t explain itself well and so I think some people will miss the point. I hope this review helps to explain it as a short, midweight experience that retains much of the value that longer war games offer, but if you do invest in it, check out a lets play video before you dive into the overly complex rule book, then loop back to pick up the nuances of play. Broadly speaking, a solid entry and well worth a look.

***½  3.5/5

A copy of Hitler’s Reich was supplied by GMT Games for review.

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