Unconditional Surrender: Exploration and Impressions

I am currently working my way through an Exploration series of videos on Unconditional Surrender from GMT Games and designer Salvatore Vasta. The first episode in embedded below; the second will be out tomorrow. My impressions are below.

Unconditional Surrender is a strategic-level game about World War II in Europe. While both the rulebook and playbook are fairly hefty and there are some fussy rules here and there, it’s really not very complicated for a game of its scope. I was able to get the hang of all the basics by watching a few videos (and there’s a ton of video on it,) and the finer points didn’t cost me too much time looking up on the spot.

There are a couple of things about this game that some folks have been turned off by. Most obviously it uses an unusual map projection which looks funny to hairy old wargamers who have seen a lot of strategic maps of Europe. But the equal-area projection that it uses is actually very smart; it means that hexes toward the north of the play area are much less distorted in size than they would be on a more conventional map. This allows, for example, for all of Scandinavia to fit on the table, while eliminating silliness like Soviet units roaming around in the vast expanses of northern Finland.

The other striking thing that’s obvious at a glance is the counters — they have no strength factors on them. Instead, differences in combat ability are represented by a number of die roll modifiers. One might feel that the game was missing some detail without combat factors, but in practice everything you;d want represented ta this level is worked in, and it all works really well at the table.

One of the game’s features is that all combat — ground, air, naval and strategic warfare — uses the same combat table. The modifiers and interpretations of the results are different, but everything works the same way, removing, right off the top, a substantial amount of rules overhead, while missing none of the detail or flavor that you’d want.

This elegance carries forward throughout the design. Production is handled very cleanly, for example, yet offers more strategic choices than a simple reinforcement schedule. The events of the game effect this is a realistic way. When Germany conquers Poland, for example, it gets the Polish Corridor and a potential new unit in the pool — but it doesn’t just get all of Poland’s factories for its own use. The same type of arrangement holds for the USSR and the Baltic States.

Diplomacy runs on a simple chit-pull-plus-conditions system that gives real choices but produces plausible results. The result is a game that flows along historically plausible lines but doesn’t feel scripted to always produce historical results. It’s not guaranteed that Italy will end up as an Axis country, for example, or the Yugoslavia will join the Allies — but despite wargame tradition and conventional wisdom, those outcomes were not preordained historically, either.

I’m exploring Unconditional Surrender solitaire, but it would work great with two or three players. I judge that it is not a true three-faction game, but that’s okay. And there are guidelines for playing with four, where the Axis gets split into west and east fronts controlled by separate players. A variety of scenarios are presented, including several learning games to ease oneself in.

This isn’t a review — I haven’t played enough of Unconditional Surrender to write a credible one. I don’t know if it will become a ‘classic” — I’m not an expert on the classics, and I’m reluctant to assign that label to a game this young. But Unconditional Surrender seems to me to be very well-designed and produced, and I can see it getting a great deal of play.

The good design also extends to the components; the map by Vasta and stalwart Mark Simonitch looks great, the counters are the usual GMT quality (but on the somewhat lighter white-core stock) and there’s a stack of very well-thought-out play aids. But to me the Rulebook and Playbook are the best part: they are well-organized and crystal clear except in a couple of places, and better yet, there’s an index, and one of the best indices I’ve seen out of GMT at that. They are also stuffed with detailed examples, advice, designer commentary and the like.

Unconditional Surrender is currently out of print and fetching big bucks if you buy it from speculators, but it’s up for reprint on the P500 and should make it back to store shelves early next year. If you’re in the market for a clean-playing (if not necessarily quick) strategic World War II game, check it out. I can already tell you that I would rather play this than World in Flames or any of Third Reich’s various spin-offs and descendants.

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