02nd Mar2020

‘Heroes of Stalingrad’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


Whilst we’ve enjoyed many war games here at Nerdly, we have to admit that the subject matter can be divisive. War is inherently dark, and when you get down to platoon level combat where individual squads of five or six men fight for inches of ground, it can bring the realities of the situation home in a way that not everyone finds welcome. The veteran designers at Devil Pig Games have a solution for this, however, through their rather shouty “HEROES SYSTEM: TACTICAL SCALE” engine, which combines humorous visuals with visceral combat. The latest release in this faltering line (which I’ll get to in a moment) is Heroes of Stalingrad.

And to be honest, we’re lucky to have Heroes of Stalingrad at all. Rumours of Devil Pig Games financial challenges begin to arise during the fulfilment of its previous Heroes game, the Warhammer 40k licensed Heroes of Black Reach. Regardless of what might be going on behind the scenes, Devil Pig were able to fulfil both of these games to both Kickstarter backs and retail outlets, but there’s a growing sense that Heroes of Stalingrad is either make or break for the company, so I for one was hoping for a great game.

And thankfully, that’s exactly what we’ve got here. Heroes of Stalingrad may be very similar mechanically to past iterations in the series (especially Heroes of Normandie) but the unique challenges of Stalingrad itself are very different to those of the hedgerows of Northern France, and the combat in this sequel is grittier, tighter and slightly more focused on fire teams than vehicles. That’s not to say that vehicles don’t feature, but you’re unlikely to see more than one on each side, and the components don’t allow for a proper tank battle.

As with its forebears in the Heroes series, Heroes of Stalingrad is a strictly two player (one side can be automated for solo play) affair that has two notable phases to it. The first is essentially deployment, and this is something that only moderately experienced players and upwards will really dabble with. Essentially, each unit (including commanders, squads, vehicles and equipment or upgrades) has a cost, and it is possible to play any combination of maps and armies by deciding how big a battle you want to fight and then following some basic rules.

For the novice player and those wanting a quick match, there are numerous pre-designed scenarios to work through. In each of these, the players will take control of a specific group of units (or sometimes they’ll be given a resource pool much like the custom mode I mention above, but the map will be predetermined) and set up the map boards accordingly. Each map is preprinted with detail such as roads and buildings, but there are also a number of terrain features that can be placed as overlays as needed.

Everything in Heroes of Stalingrad is printed on very thick, exceptionally high quality card, and the standard and detail of the artwork is high. Characters feature action poses that bring them to life, whilst fire teams and heavy weapons look resolute and easily identifiable. Damage and other key information can clearly be seen to the sides of each token, and it’s obvious which side of a unit is healthy and which is diminished or destroyed. There are a few interesting additions to the series here in terms of tokens as well, for example the flamethrower template, which uses an area of effect template to indicate affected targets.

When the game actually begins, the HEROES SYSTEM really comes into its own. Each turn begins with the players dishing out a number of orders depending on the number of command stars indicated on their units. A star may come from an officer, a unit or through an upgrade or some other means. In general, the German side will field smaller forces with a decent number of orders, whilst the Soviet’s will field more units with fewer command points to share between them.

When it comes to placing orders, this is done secretly, with each player placing orders on their units with their numbers facing down. This basically means that the other player will know which units are going go activate, but not the order intended. There are also a number of bluff tokens that can be used (depending on the situation) to mislead the opponent about which units you’ll actually activate. The reality is though, that the number of orders you’ll place, will be the same number as your side has stars.

Once orders are placed, they will be executed in initiative order (which alternates from side to side) and then by order number. Units may move, attack, move and attack or perform special actions such as assault (melee) or entrench depending on their specific focus. Combat is resolved between the unit that is firing and the unit being fired upon – some weapons simply can’t damage certain other units (light weapons versus tanks, for example) and therefore such an attack can”t be made, but in general, a value will be determined as a comparison between base attack and base defence, modified by cover, range, the roll of a dice and potentially other factors.

In most cases, hitting a unit will damage it, causing to flip to a diminished side. There are exceptions to this, and some units (the flamer, for example) could be destroyed instantly. Vehicles follow different rules, with each kind of vehicle potentially suffering different kinds of damage when hit. A tank gun might be damaged, or a half track might be immobilised, to name just a couple of possibilities. More damage will usually destroy a vehicle outright, causing it to flip over and become an obstacle on the board that blocks line of sight and provides cover.

After all the numbered orders are resolved, the next phase allows all other units (those that did not receive commands) to move, allowing them to get into position in their own time, but not to shoot our perform certain other actions. Again, coming back to the idea that the German force is smaller and more efficient, there is a certain impetus on them to ruthlessly eliminate the Soviet units as they advance, whilst for the Soviets, the focus is on overwhelming the German lines and hoping to breakthrough at some point.

Whilst there are exceptions to this (certainly when you build your own free form armies) the strength of the Heroes of Stalingrad setting and engine is that it really does create the kind of individual stories that the name “Heroes” implies. The officers are crucial to your success, both because they hold most of your orders (which will be lost of the officer is killed) and because they have powerful special abilities. Players are constantly forced to choose between using their officers to push the attack, or holding them back to ensure their safety.

Unique weapons and units like snipers, light machine guns, the flamer or the handful of vehicles come with their own interesting nuances, as does the ability to destroy buildings and flush enemies out. The modular building tiles enable different tactical approaches, and whilst holing up in a fortified building can be valuable, a well placed tank shell or airstrike can change things rapidly. Open ground in Stalingrad is generally deadly, because aside from the actual buildings, there is relatively little cover – this gives the game some very interesting tactical challenges compared to Heroes of Normandie.

Heroes of Stalingrad is the kind of game that has the potential to lead novice war gamers through the idea of what war games are about without overwhelming them. Visually, it delivers far more interest than any other war games that I’ve played, with superb quality art that brings the whole experience to life. By linking this visual flair with an engine that really can tell stories, and by still including most of the powerful mechanics that “more serious” war games are good at, Devil Pig Games are onto a winner here.

**** 4/5

Heroes of Stalingrad is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator


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