Unconditional Surrender

edited April 2016 in Board Game Reviews
GMT games published in 2013 a strategic level game on the European Theater of WW2 called Unconditional Surrender (USE). It was well received and I managed to trade for a copy before it sold out. As the game is well regarded, it now brings a pretty penny on the secondary market.

USE was designed by Sal Vasta, one of the guys associated with the development of the various editions of Totaler Krieg. I thought USE and TK would share a lot of ideas, but they really don't. USE seems to be rather unique in the world of WW2 ETO games in that it is, well, unique.

The mechanics of the game are fairly simple, although it being such a large game, it does feel like it is more complex. But once you get the hang of the movement and combat routines, it flows along pretty well. The unit density is low. There is no stacking. Each unit represents an army level size unit. Air units are fewer than in other games of this scale. An interesting twist on the air unit is that they are reusable until they accumulate 6 sorties. Depending on the combat results, multiple sorties can be accumulated in a missions, but it is normally a single sortie.

The ground units have no numbers of them, other than a unit designation. Each mobile unit get 10 movement points per activation. Leg units get 8. This can be halved if a unit is in low supply. Similarly, the units do not have combat factors. So on the surface, it would appear that all armies are created equal. However, the heart of the combat system is the support assets that each side can bring to bear for a combat. German units get an attack bonus for being German. Armor units get a bonus. Air support and artillery can also be used to add to the die roll modifiers. So combat is an attacker die roll plus DRM versus a defender die roll plus DRM. Units can move as far as they want to until they encounter an enemy unit with a zone of control, at which time they must either stop or attack.

Attacking is either on the move (only one unit at a time as units activate individually) or as a declared assault. Attacking on the move, if successful, can be followed with more movement and more such attacks. Multiple units can be marked for a declared assault but one marked, they are no longer allowed to move. There are advantages to using both tactics, depending on the situation one is trying to overcome.

Another key consideration is supply. Supply lines are fairly short. Units are only allowed one intervening hex between their location and a communication route (roads or railroads marked on the map). Coupled with the fact that the zones of control are somewhat sticky, supply line management is a key factor in the game. Zones of control not countered with a friendly unit can block supply.

My experience with the game thus far has been one small scenario and this was a separate mini-game included in the latest issues of C3I, GMT's house magazine. This scenario was Eastern Front Case Blue. I solo'd about 2/3 of it last night and I must say that I can see what all the hype is about. This game is well thought out and after a few references to the rules, I was pretty much flying solo.

The game design has pretty much everything you would expect in a game on this topic and at this scale. There is diplomacy (chit draws that allow or deny certain activities). There is strategic warfare, but not on a scale like in other similar games. This is basically a chit system that determines the number of factories might be affected by a side. It has economics, although this is a very simple system. It is based on the number of factories in the home country, less strategic warfare effects. This is unlike other games where the home economy grows through conquest. There are random events, which really aren't random but are more conditional events (if this then that). This adds some chrome to the basic system.

It is my impression that the game was designed with pretty much all of the predecessors in mind. There are a few things that resemble Third Reich, Hitler's War and Totaler Krieg, but Vasta has created a system that is really something new and fresh.

I will have to play through the 1939 start scenario to get the real feel of the game, but this could very well be the best WW2 ETO game I have played. Even after my very limited exposure thus far, it is certainly in the discussion.


  • I have been playing through the 1939 campaign scenario of Unconditional Surrender Europe. As I posted last year, I had played the mini-game that had been published in the GMT house support magazine. I was favorably impressed with the min-game, which is essentially a small scenario of the greater game played on a small map. That experience gave me interest in playing the full game. So as I have been trying to actually play the unplayed games on my shelves, I wanted to get this one on the table as soon as I could.

    So I got out my old magnetic counter clips and purchased a pair of 2' x 3' magnetic white boards ($19 each at Walmart). One of the nice things about Unconditional Surrender Europe (USE) is that the counter density is low. There is little stacking allowed. You can have one land unit and one air unit and one naval unit per hex, but that's it. And the number of air and naval units is relatively small so there are no tall stacks. Even still, it took me some time to set up the game with the magnets. It took me longer to read the rules.

    The rule book for USE is long - 52 pages. Not terrible by wargame standards, but long nonetheless. However, I have read dozens of wargame rulebooks (probably hundreds over the years.) I found this rulebook to be among the best I have ever read. It is written in a straight forward direct manner. Some designers describe what you can do by telling you what you can't do. Not so here. This is a well written and illustrated set of rules. I found myself actually looking forward to any opportunity when I could ready through a few more pages. The other remarkable thing about these rules is that I felt I understood how to play the game once I put the book down. With some games and many wargames, one doesn't know how the game really is supposed to work until you start into it. I was able to begin play immediately.

    I have only played through one full turn (September 1939) and I have decided to play the first few turns following the historical script for the most part. What I really like about the game is that it is very procedure driven. I think this appeals to my engineering background. All combat resolution is done with the same procedure and on the same tables. The designer has come up with a clever system that allows for this. He uses die roll modifiers instead of combat factors and odds based combat resolution. As such, the units do not have combat factors. This seemed to me that it could not work. Not only does it work, it works very well and with a limited amount of rules overhead. Other procedures for things such as bringing in reinforcements or conducting diplomatic business have some similarities again reducing the need for thumbing through the rulebook. The designer has created a player aid card for each faction that contains holding boxes for units and markers that will comen into play based on certain events and at various times in the sequence of play. It all flows together nicely and was clearly well thought out.

    I have played a lot of games over the last year - over 50 different ones in 2015 and already 20+ so far this year. Many of these games have been run of the mill and haven't provided what I would consider to be a unique gaming experience. There were a few I played last year that were outstanding. USE compares very favorably with those games in my top 15 list of 2015.

    I will have to continue my solo game to keep pushing buttons and twisting the knobs, but from what I have seen so far, this game has few flaws.
  • So I am now into 1941 in my Unconditional Surrender Europe (USE) campaign game that started in 1939. To give a brief recap, the Germans conquered Poland and Denmark in historical fashion, but had trouble with Norway. Given the nature of amphibious assaults in USE, the required Surprise Attack marker was not available to the Germans again for four months, by which time the weather had tuned. A second assault in the spring resulted in the expected conquest. France was a bit tougher nut to crack in USE than in other strategic WW2 games. It almost took 3 turns to conquer France but for a lucky last die roll in the second month. The Luftwaffe was well spent in the France campaign so the Battle of Britain never really occurred.

    The Soviets annexed all of the Baltic nations and made Romania a Soviet instead of German satellite. The Germans had diplomatic success in Hungary but were repeatedly frustrated in Italy. More on that in a second. The Western Allies have had precious little success in the diplomacy area with only a possible alliance in Spain in the works.

    Strategic warfare has begun with the German U-Boat warfare marker making the biggest difference cutting into the production of the Western Allies. So at the beginning of 1941 the Germans are looking to shore up Italy as an ally and also to invade Yugoslavia and Greece to counter the Romanian threat and to attempt to influence Bulgaria.

    The only fault I have found in the game system thus far is the diplomatic procedure. This is pretty much a simple chit pull from a cup. Players do have some influence over what goes into the cup. There are a number of No Event chits that can be pulled as well as some political success and failure chits. There are also some ceded boundary chits that favor the Soviets. It has seemed a bit too random for my taster, however, I did misplay one thing that certainly would have made a difference. Each country conquest for the Germans would have added a German control marker to the cup. I failed to do this on at least one or two occasions so the Germans would have had a a bit better chance of getting some specific success. So while this keeps the game rating at a 9 instead of 10, this has been a relatively minor complaint for me.

    The game is very good at showing the pacing and planning required for major operations. It isn't simply enough to launch one assault after another. Units have to be moved into place. This takes time and production resources. Air and naval units have to be rested for them to be a full capability. This also takes time and production resources. The game does well in simulating the factors behind the headlines.

    This might be the best new wargame I have played since Empire of the Sun. It is definitely the best WW2 European Strategic Theater game I have played and I have played a lot of them.

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