When it comes to wargaming topics, I have a definite soft spot for the obscure and undergamed. Sure, I own a few Bulge and D-Day treatments, and more than my share of games on the Western Front of World War One, but I have a hard time passing up conflict simulations covering battles that have been mostly overlooked by the hobby. Games on these subjects often benefit from being terra incognita for designers, freeing them from worrying about how some other designer has worked out the orders of battle or the terrain problems, and frequently one sees innovative mechanics as a result.
Sometimes, though, battles go underrepresented in the gaming sphere for a reason—there’s just not a lot of game there. At first glance, such is the case for Mike Benninghof’s Forgotten Axis: Murmansk 1941, from Decision Games. The German attempt to seize the vital Soviet port of Murmansk stands as a potentially war-changing offensive; cutting off that crucial supply lifeline in 1941 would have had significant repercussions for the long war to follow. And yet, the battle itself, at least on the evidence presented in this design, offers up no such momentous cataclysm. The Germans came, the Germans couldn’t conquer, the Germans left, in life as in the game.
Forgotten Axis: Murmansk 1941
Decision Games, 1999
Strategy & Tactics 194
Designed by Mike Benninghof
Murmansk 1941 appeared as the issue game in Strategy & Tactics 194 (November/December 1998; published in 1999), with a sheet of 140 die-cut half-inch counters and a single 22″ x 34″ map on matte paper. The first in designer Mike Benninghof’s three-part Forgotten Axis series, this game covers the attempts by the German 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions to take the Arctic port of Murmansk, defended by the Soviet 14th and 52nd Rifle Divisions. The later games in the series cover actions in Finland and Romania.
Units are mostly battalions, with specific unit designations and depicted on the counters using standard NATO symbols. The artwork is vintage Beth Queman, uncluttered and yeomanlike, using a serif font. My copy had a bit of color bleed from one counter to the next where the divisional color stripes start and stop, and some off-registration—in other words, a fairly standard S&T countersheet from the late ’90s, right down to the completely unornamented and woefully hyphenated “Dis-rupted” info markers.
The Joe Youst map, at a two kilometer-per-hex scale, is a muted riot of greens and blues, detailing the barren landscape along the Barents Sea coast, from Petsamo in the west to Murmansk in the east. Tundra terrain dominates, and a single road leads between the two major population centers. Much of the map’s area will never come into play given the difficulty of moving units through the tundra and forests, making the inability to fit the Combat Results Table and Bombardment Table on the map a bit puzzling.
The map is back printed with the map for the game Sea Devils—indeed, counters and rules for that game are included in this issue of S&T as well, to make good for glaring production and design issues in the original printing from S&T 191. Annoyingly, the rules for Sea Devils are center printed in the magazine, cutting the Murmansk 1941 rules in half. Removing the Sea Devils rules doesn’t help much, because a page of the Murmansk rules are on the back of the last page of the Sea Devils rules.
Murmansk 1941 comes with three scenarios, each twenty-four turns long and each essentially a cookie-cutter version of the others, just with different start dates and locations and marginally different objectives for the forces involved.
Play in Murmansk 1941 centers around a chit-draw system, whereby the player randomly draws a formation activation chit from an opaque container. Once activated, units in the chosen formation (divisions, here) run through a turn sequence; once all formations have been activated, the turn (which is of an undefined length but possibly twelve hours?) ends and the chits are returned to the container to be drawn again.
The sequence of play puts the cart before the horse, as it were, inverting the usual move/fight order. Here, the handful of mobile units (mechanized, cavalry, and bicycle) move, then all units have the option to conduct combat, then all units (save for artillery that fired in combat) move, giving mobile units an effective double move. This inversion forces players to plan combats ahead at least a turn and also gives defenders a chance to shore up expected lines of enemy advance. It’s a subtle change, one that, in conjunction with the randomness injected by the chit-draw system, takes some control out of player hands, always a welcome addition to any conflict simulation. That perfectly odds-balanced attack can turn into an iffy proposition if the defender sneaks another unit into the intended target hex or, worse, gets two activations before your next one, allowing for a spoiling attack.
And yet, this nuance really doesn’t seem to matter in Murmansk 1941. The incredibly restrictive terrain limits most units to a single hex of off-road movement per turn, and stacking restrictions (two battalions per hex, regardless of terrain) mean the single road winds up clogged. Maneuver takes place in slow motion, like punch-drunk boxers taking swings at each other under water. Trying to reach the game objectives without using the road runs into turn-limit issues—even with twenty-four turns per scenario, you’re not getting from here to there at one hex per turn. Too, attempts to go off-road inevitably require crossing several rivers with the help of engineer units, but even in the best of circumstances, it will take multiple turns per division, per river to be crossed. And that’s without worrying about the opposing forces…
One might charitably note that these were issues faced by the combatants in the field, and so the representation of these challenges in the game should only be fitting. Trying to lead units cross-tundra in the game does bring to light the immense logistical task faced by these armies. But so much here feels fudged and haphazardly thrown together, most notably the disconnect between the victory conditions, the turn limit, and the bloody Combat Results Table.
To wit, the Soviets gain three times the victory points (three) per German step loss as the Germans gain for a Soviet step loss (one). With the attacker susceptible to mandatory step losses on the CRT for certain results, and those results frequently being doubled for a “Major Battle” involving twelve or more steps (so six full strength units), the German player can wind up in a VP hole very quickly despite conducting a competent assault. With the onus of attacking on the Germans, there’s a sense of moving one hex forward and then two hexes back. A Soviet defense in depth along the sole road, often at river crossings that halve attack strength, will stymie the German player, full stop. Trying to finagle units around this defense using engineers to create river crossings takes time the Germans don’t have and feeds units into battle piecemeal.
Again, the Germans historically faced these issues as well, but one of the true tests of any conflict simulation is the ability of the game to recreate the events as they actually unfolded. If the included article on the battle, written by Benninghof himself, accurately represents the history, then the game does not simulate the conflict with a high degree of fidelity.
The scenarios seem to be the main culprits here—in the first scenario, for example, the Soviets start in control of 30 VP worth of objectives, one of which (Ura-Guba) the Germans can only realistically take if the Soviets completely leave the road clear of units. Another objective (Titovka) sits six hexes (so, effectively six turns) off the road line, past the main Soviet river line defense. Absent these VP, the German must try to make up the difference by by eliminating Soviet steps, while not adding to their VP deficit through step losses of their own, a nigh impossible task. It feels as though the scenarios were designed by taking the historical force dispositions, dropping them on a map, adding arbitrary VP objectives and values, and calling it a day.
If the point of the exercise is to show that the Germans can’t win this fight—as, indeed, they did not—then some other VP scheme than “most VP wins” should have been employed. Yes, Murmansk 1941 is “just” a magazine game, but the hobby has employed comparative VP levels, contrasting player performance to historical performance, since its inception. It just feels sloppy to leave such a simple metric out of the game.
Optional rules covering automatic victories at high odds levels and, more significantly, formation efficiency tracking, help shift the balance back a little towards the Germans. But in practice, the efficiency modifiers only make for a more miserable Soviet play experience, which already verges on the unsatisfying (or, more frankly, boring). Once a formation loses enough efficiency (via step loss and unit elimination), they cannot attack or enter enemy zones of control, and suffer penalties to their defense.
Solo Play Suitability
Perhaps no wargame rules mechanic lends itself to solitaire play better than the formation activation chit-draw system. The uncertainty caused by not knowing which units will move next helps sand down the edges of player omniscience, a problem in wargaming in general and an especial bugbear in solo gaming. A more traditional I-Go/U-Go system can be unconsciously exploited, with the player safe in the knowledge that one side will get to move after the other does; the specter of a double move for a formation, one chit at the end of a turn followed by the first chit in the next, forces a more circumspect approach to the game; for solo players, it’s a hedge against subconsciously favoring one side over another.
Benninghof’s flip of the traditional move/fight sequence into fight/move also proves to be solo friendly, again because it prompts more forward planning and forces, essentially, the attacker to signal where the hammer blow will fall. Opportunities then exist, should the chit draw favor it, for reinforcements and/or counterattacks, making it easier to play each side to its best abilities.
As for the particular situation on display in Murmansk 1941, the Germans have a far more active role, with the Soviets confined mostly to reactive defense. The Soviets are further hampered by a command and control system, whereby units more than five hexes from a headquarters unit have a 50% chance to carry out any given action; German units have no such initiative restrictions.
Games where one side only has full freedom-of-movement and conducts almost all the attacks tend towards the tedious for face-to-face gaming, but in the case of solitaire gaming, they prove much less onerous. Indeed, I doubt I could find an opponent willing to take the Soviets in this game. In my playings, I conducted zero attacks with them other than artillery bombardments, which, when concentrated, proved to be frighteningly effective in whittling away German steps.
Otherwise, the Soviets’ low attack strengths simply lack the potency to do much to the Germans, and even though they theoretically have numbers on their side, the Soviets, through initiative restrictions and the overall hampered maneuver options in the game, seldom have the ability to bring those numbers to bear. Given the bloody CRT, the Germans will do more damage to themselves by attacking than the Soviets could ever hope to inflict on their own. This puzzle-like approach to combat on the German side, then, favors a solitaire play style.
Final Die Roll
The Forgotten Axis game system aims towards low-complexity and quick play, and this remit Murmansk 1941 certainly fulfills. The chit-draw mechanic and fight/move sequence work a treat for the solitaire wargamer, and I cannot deny that the system plays fast, though to a great extent that speed stems from the paucity of movement options available due to the stifling tundra terrain.
But the series aspect of the rules does this unique campaign a disservice; whatever action the Forgotten Axis system is designed to portray, it’s not this one. The setting feels shoehorned into the game system. The scale feels wrong, and the complete lack of supply rules, in an environment where logistics were fully half the battle, fails to capture the essence of this campaign in the middle of nowhere. Zoom in on the battle along the road, provide more granular units to allow for a bit of maneuver even in the constricted terrain, force players to deal with the supply constraints caused by having a single usable line of communication, and you’ve got yourself a game.
Murmansk 1941 remains one of the few dedicated operational treatments of the Battle for Murmansk; the only other comparable option I can find, at regimental scale, is a scenario in Volume II of The Finnish Trilogy. Yet even if you have an interest in the campaign, I fear I cannot recommend Murmansk 1941—the simulation does not match the events on the ground closely enough to justify the experience from a learning standpoint, nor is there sufficiently compelling gameplay on offer to earn it a spot on your table from a ludic perspective.
In the end, it’s not that there’s not a game in this battle; it’s just that Murmansk 1941 isn’t that game.