A dusty StuG and a Molotov-scorched Panzer IV are knocking seven bells out of the north wall, there are enemy scouts pressed against the east wall, and behind every rubble pile to the west is a fascist with a firearm. Things look grim, but if Turgunov, my AT rifleman, and Bondarenko, my machine gunner, are on the ball this turn, this battered four-storey Stalingrad apartment block won’t fall into German hands just yet.
Am I concerned about the fact that we’re almost out of food and water, and our cross-Volga supply line was recently severed by Stukas? Naturally. Did I wince when Sergeant Pavlov, the chap whose inspirational presence helped us weather three earlier assaults, was shot dead by a sniper last turn? Of course. But, as Private Kiselev likes to say, “It ain’t over until the fat Commisar farts”.
It’s impossible to have a dull game of Pavlov’s House. Because this £6 Steam treat mimeographs this excellent $60 solitaire board game, every playthrough heaves with tough choices, emergent drama, and nailbiting I-just-can’t-watch dice rolls.
The way David Thompson, the designer of the cardboard original, turns a Red Army platoon’s tenacious 60-day defence of a Stalingrad landmark into a fast-playing, action-packed, replay-friendly solo wargame verges on the alchemical. It’s (almost) all here – the men, the weapons, the tactics, the logistics, the crescendos, the lulls, the pressure, the feelings of dread, relief, and vulnerability. Few Steam wargames précis history as deftly as PH. Good luck finding a clumsy, confusing, or fussy rule in the embedded rule book .
A lesser talent would have slapped a floorplan of the titular building in the centre of their board then crazy-paved what was left with a hotch-potch of counter tracks. Thompson’s ingenious triptych battlespace both lubricates play and enriches it. It puts the combat in 9th January Square in context while tricking you into believing you’re the kind of cool courgette who can play three games simultaneously. Look at me – I just laid a minefield, repaired telegraph wires, fought off a dive bomber attack, treated a wounded hero, replaced a slain mortar crewman, and punctured a Panzer in under two minutes without switching screens or breaking a sweat!
The way decisions and developments on one section of the board shape stories and tactics on another is genius. Failure to repair and guard against bomb damage on the eastern bank of the Volga can very easily lead to Pavlov and pals going hungry or morphine-less on the western bank. A new Wehrmacht tactics card appearing in the centre board will often provoke precautionary deployment changes on the lefthand one. When contemplating actions like artillery bombardments your gaze roams the three board sections like a restless blow fly. (Righthand board) Do I have a battery ready? (Centre board) What adjacent targets are most deserving of my HE deluge? (Lefthand board) Who should surrender his place so that the newly arrived forward observer can do his thing?
PH uses card drawing and rationed actions to force the player to prioritise. In the first phase of a turn you draw four cards and use them to make three ‘operational’ decisions. As every card offers two options, only one of which can be chosen, and there are usually dozens of things you’d like to get done, the pressure is palpable from turn 1. One turn you might use your three ops actions to move supplies to the staging area, start transporting them across the Volga, and prepare a welcome for the horribly persistent Stukas. The next you might complete the supply run, add some handpicked recruits to your reserves, and repair/fortify one of the walls of the apartment block.
Hot on the heels of the Soviet card phase comes the German one. You watch with bated breath as, one by one, three cards are drawn… (Card 1) Crikey. A StuG has just rumbled into view on ‘track 5’. Its appearance shunts the scouts already on that track one step close to my redoubt! (Card 2) Hmm, the Ju 87s are back and one of them has survived my flak barrage and sunk a ferry. Not good. (Card 3) Christ on a Kettenkrad, just what I didn’t need! The enemy is mounting a full-scale multi-directional assault. Oh well, at least I thinned out the fascists on my mauled ‘green’* side last turn.
* The walls and interior of the apartment are colour-coded for damage and Line-of-Fire purposes.
Next is the movement phase – the portion of a turn in which you get to rearrange warriors within the house and deploy reserves. Finally there’s the action phase – your opportunity to launch attacks, lay down suppressive fire, rest weary defenders, and steel and reorganise disrupted ones. Naturally, the game uses an action point system to limit activity and add tension in both of these phases.
Games continue until either the German deck has been exhausted or an enemy unit has penetrated the apartment block by moving beyond the final space of its movement track. In my experience, more defences end due to overruns than deck depletion. Defeats are common in PH. Sometimes, however cannily you play, the dice and cards simply refuse to cooperate. A Degtyaryov LMG team bucks the odds by missing three times in a row… A Panzer III survives two PTRD-41 attacks… A cruel run of cards floods a particular track with Wehrmacht units. It’s a testament to the game’s storytelling power and historical feel that potentially disastrous misfortunes like these never – in me at least – kindle frustration or rage. In reality Pavlov and his comrades were, at times, one ration delivery or jammed MG away from defeat. It feels appropriate that PH playthroughs – most of which last around an hour – have their fair share of knife-edge moments.
Putting the luck issue and minor realism quibbles related to crewed weapons*, AT warfare**, and fatigue modelling*** to one side, cardboard PH is awfully close to perfection. It’s such an incredibly strong and distinctive design, part of me wishes more money had been spent on its computerisation. Minnows, Bookmark Games, have done a workmanlike job, but disappointingly sparse ambient audio and a slightly untidy GUI seem to have slipped past the studio’s quality control sentries unnoticed.
* Lost an LMG loader? Only a chap with the ‘MG’ skill can fill his boots.
** Armour must be tackled with AT guns and ATRs. The game doesn’t model Molotovs and AT grenades.
*** Exhausted units can’t be moved to the rear until they’ve rested, and never recover automatically.
Purists will shudder, but there are times this week when I’ve found myself picturing a lavish 3D port. In my mind’s eye I can see the camera rising from the smoky, brass-strewn apartment interior to a point where it can take in the square crawling with German infantry and armour. Another mousewheel caress lifts the view still higher. Now we’re up above the Volga with the Stukas and the flak bursts, watching bomb blasts drench ferrymen and obliterate arms dumps. “Pavlov’s House 3D” mesmerises, until I spot, through drifting smoke, its divisive price tag. Perhaps dowdy/cheap 2D Pavlov’s House is preferable after all. If Tally-Ho Corner dished out ‘RECOMMENDED’ rosettes I’d be reaching for my second round about now.