The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

No Retreat! Review

I’ve discussed and obsessed over No Retreat for around a month now; it deserves a review.

I want to recommend No Retreat unreservedly. I should be able to.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thinking about it, playing it, teaching it. I can teach enough rules to get a new player crossing the Russian frontier in 15 minutes (while I set up the game) and finishing the game (assuming no dawdling) in an hour or two. When a campaign game had to be split into two sections, it only took a few minutes to write down the position. (It would have taken half that If I’d had a sheet that listed units by front and back. So I made one up).

The system of Counterattacks and Counterblows is confusing at first; but it allows for complex possibilities in a simple system. The attacker could retreat, even though that option doesn’t appear directly on the CRT. It handles minutiae cleanly. You may have a great 3:1 attack, but your opponent makes a diversionary attack from a nearby unit, and now you have a 3:2 attack and a 1:1 attack. That 1:1 may result in a counterattack, and suddenly you are retreating on your turn and that Russian infantry advances and sneaks behind your lines, cutting supply. This transforms a simple Igo-Ugo into a (potentially) fluid situation. Not often, but sometimes.

The card deck isn’t monstrous, but it provides organic flexibility. Sometimes units sneak an extra MP of movement (often during your turn!). Sometimes your perfect 3:1 attack becomes a 3:2, or just a counterattack! A fortress, which normally takes 2 attacks to fall, could be shelled by siege artillery and collapse quickly. Hitler and Stalin meddle and order attacks or divert your resources. It’s a great little experience, with lots that could potentially happen.

But after 20 hours of playing and 5+ more hours of soloing and compiling a FAQ, I’m still discovering  a missed rule or wondering about a card ‘s interpretation. Perhaps that says more about me than the game, but I consider myself good with rules. (Wargames have tougher rules than Euros, to be sure; but having 55 cards means that the rules aren’t really just 24 pages, they have all the additional “But what if you play card X in this situation?”).

For the most part, we take a stab and played on. After each game, we send out an email saying “This is what we got wrong.”  I think I finally (finally!) have the first 11 turns worth of Rules down pretty well, and most of the next 12 turns.  The 1945 rules and cards clutch their fair share of surprises tightly to their chest.

It’s fair to say that the rules need work.

My other complaint is that the variance is too high. Getting a mitt full of ‘useless’ cards can be terrible. (Technically all cards can be discarded for rail movement, organization, counterblows and replacements, but sometimes those aren’t really options). Germany could start with 6 useless cards, or they could start with extra movement, battle cards, cards to cancel a Soviet card (“Stalin”), cards to pick up a good card to use again on the next turn. One card effectively discards itself without replacement … and makes you reshuffle before your next card. I’ve gotten it twice in one turn, so instead of getting 4 cards, I got 2. Over a campaign, you’ll have amazing turns, terrible turns and one or two “I don’t believe it turns.” Hopefully they balance, but it’s entirely possible that a game could end on a sudden run of terrible luck where you draw a card that randomly flips the weather, then get a useless hand short a card or two while your opponent plays cards to give him an extra hand’s worth.

I’ve had games end on turn 3 (out of 23!) when that happens. No big deal. But if I’d been playing for 4 hours and then it happened on turn 16? I’d be miffed, I think. And I love No Retreat. If you only roll a few combats a turn (and you can’t have more than 10, even 7 would be extreme) then a few unlucky rolls can seriously put you behind schedule, and that  compounds. Worse would be a situation where your position collapses and you have hours left. If that bothers you, make sure your opponent agrees that concession is OK.

I also have nits. The short scenarios, being short, are more susceptible to variance. Lose 3 cards (or have your opponent luck into 3 extra) over a game, eh. During a 4 turn scenario? Ugh. Additionally, Barbarossa seems to hinge on the first two turns of German luck. Either they get lucky and win going away or have no hope.  That scenario could be decided half way into the game. I think I’ll save it for a teaching tool (or the start of a campaign). I suspect Fall Blau could be tweaked to be a turn longer (or slightly more fluid at the start), but it’s fine. I need to try the other scenarios. I think that the general ’44 victory conditions should allow for an Soviet victory if they greatly exceed the Axis high tide (like the tournament game has). But, as I said, these are nits.

Look, I love No Retreat! I played a campaign game for 5 hours Sunday, then taught a player (via Barbarossa) then played Fall Blau tonight. I’ll play it again this weekend, given a chance. I think there’s a cyberboard module; I’d play by email.

Do I recommend it? To grognards with a high tolerance for variance, yes. If you want to plan things out to the nth degree, you need to stay away from this.  If you need to know how every rules works at the time, and how every card works, you’ll need a good wifi connection and a search engine … (there are 230 odd posts on rules questions as I speak).

I expect that in a month or two this will move from an obsession to “a game I like to play and will suggest.” That’s just how these things go. That’s a better fate than befell Twilight Struggle, whose interesting idea didn’t survive repeated plays (even though it’s rules work fine). No Retreat! goes into the “Glorious Mess” category, along with Here I Stand. Unlike HiS, I don’t (yet) need a year off between plays to work up the enthusiasm to try it again.

My feeling — Enthusiastic. (I upped my BGG rating to 9 after I broke the 20 hour mark).


Written by taogaming

December 13, 2011 at 9:06 pm

Posted in Reviews

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3 Responses

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  1. I’ve played this only twice now, both times Barbarossa, both times as the Soviets. The first time we messed up and gave the Soviets too few reserves and with my movement blunder by surrendering both the 5 strength units due to supply to Army Group Center it was a terrible loss. The second time we played we used the optional no weather variance rule and with the card draws it just seemed like the Germans didn’t stand a change – though the battles were fairly even with the dice rolls. So far it is a good game; going to give Fall Blau a go over the Christmas break.

    Though I’d disagree strongly on Twilight Struggle which continues to be my go to game for two players. (Having severe issues with the 1989 delays over the past year.)

    Charles Feduke

    December 13, 2011 at 9:32 pm

  2. Charles, I’ve said it a lot and I’ll say it again, 1941 is not a good scenario. It’s inherently swingy situation to begin with. I’ve played No Retreat lot, rate it highly, and have never played (or had much interest in) the 1941 scenario. Seriously, the moderate-length mid-war scenarios are the best and most enjoyable. The situation in 1941 is inherently uninteresting and unstable and hard to game unless you design the game around that and that alone.

    Maybe it’s just my experience with the scenarios I’ve played, but I’ve always felt the card balance and variance was one of the game’s strengths. In ’42 and ’43 and even ’44 scenarios I’ve never felt that card distribution was a significant issue affecting game balance. While I can see the possibility, in the general case it’s hard for me to make the numbers work. The deck is only 41 cards, once you remove the Joker and 13 ’45 cards, each player gets at minimum 4 a turn, there are usually “draw X and discard Y” rules for the start of the scenarios, and the balance in general seems pretty good – a lot of fairly strong events that are worth playing and mix up the game nicely, but balanced against the inherent value of other options like replacements. But, again, I can see this being a different story in ’41. Have you tried the rules for the Joker? It allows for a mulligan on one hand.

    I don’t disagree on the rules, though. They were a struggle even in the VPG edition, and then the GMT update added errata and more rules. It’s not terrible, but I really wish they were better, and it’s disappointing given the game had been in existence for a year plus already. Although in general I like the game a lot and expect to be playing it for a while, I do absolutely wish it were a little simpler and the rules were better.

    Chris Farrell

    December 13, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    • Well, Fall Blau is technically a ’42 scenario. But I do want to try scenarios 4-6.

      The nice thing about Barbarossa is that a) fewest units of any scenario, b) you can ignore a lot of the rules for the first few turns. Germans can’t improve, replace, entrain. No special units. Rules come in a turn or two at a time. For a new player you just need to make the scenario easier — taking Moscow, or any two objectives (probably Leningrad + Sevastopol), or VP.

      But yes, for now it’s just a teaching tool.


      December 14, 2011 at 7:33 pm

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