Review: Pavlov’s House

Supplies are running low. The banks of the Volga are aflame. Another Stuka attack could be incoming. Do you ferry ammunition and first aid across or ready the flak guns? Repair the defenses of the vaunted apartment building or lay explosive traps for the encroaching enemies? Open up lines of communication or send reinforcements over to 9 January Square.

These are just some of the myriad of decisions offered by Pavlov’s House by DVG Games, a colorful and tense game that places you in the shoes of a Soviet commander during the famed Eastern Front battle.

I hesitate to call this a wargame insomuch that it isn’t your traditional hex and counter affair. On the gaming spectrum, it certainly shares more in common with Legendary: Encounters, Dead of Winter or The Captain’s Dead than a Simonitch or Zucker design. And therein lies how your mileage will vary.

Divided over three sections of the board, you effectively command two separate groups: the 62nd Army opposite the river and the troops holed up in the titular Pavlov’s House. Decisions made on the operational level trickle down and directly affect the defense of the apartment building. The middle display indicates the line of sight your troops have on the numerous tracks that are used by the German forces.

Your opponent is, alas, a deck of cards. Each fresh card drawn presents a threat to the Soviet forces defending the city. These range from a sniper taking potshots at the men manning the windows of the apartment building to tanks and infantry emerging through the rubble to close on your positions. Artillery rains down and supplies are checked. Some of these can be countered- suppression tokens enable you to attempt to prevent new counters from arriving on the tracks or active anti-aircraft batteries can reduce the number of Stukas that participate in a dive bombing run.

The Stuka raids are particularly threatening in two ways: they hamper your efforts to aid the defense of the house by burning up cards. And even if you are lucky enough to hold off without divisional command’s help, if certain spots on the board are disrupted twice it results in an automatic failure. The damage from air attacks has overrun the Soviet positions on the riverbank.

Effective gameplay comprises a delicate balancing act of playing Soviet cards and warding off threats from Wehrmacht cards by using Soviet counters in Pavlov’s house.

Your main objective is to keep the defenders of the house alive and prevent any German counter from breaching the perimeter of the building. Either failure results in an immediate loss as does sufficient damage to the 62nd Army’s headquarters.

You win the game, or in many cases ‘draw’ if you simply hold Pavlov’s house. That being said, and in typical Soviet fashion, victory is not only determined by whether you have withstood the might of the German onslaught but also if you have launched enough successful counterattacks. The more you can accomplish, the higher your end score.

There is a litany of downstream effects, especially from the Stuka bombings. It is here were things fall down a bit for me. Luck plays and outsized role in the game, everything from enemy rolls to cards drawn. This provides moments of great tension, but other times come across as random and capricious.

Also, consequences could have flowed more freely between the sectors. Nothing that happens to the apartment building affects the over strategic/operational picture and the game never explicitly states why the holding of this building is so important. Incorporating some negative effects on the operational side of the map (short of out right losing the game) would provide a more cohesive experience.

It’s clear that this has been meticulously researched, some of the resources cited in the rules are volumes I have in my collection. I appreciate the design, mechanics, and the symbiotic relationship between the different sectors. Between the pulling of card and many instances of dice rolling, the game is highly luck driven. There were playthroughs when I was overrun quickly; other times held out with relative ease. This made for an uneven experience.  I understand without a live opponent, many solitaire games are left to the whims of AI, random cards, and dice rolls. Pavlov’s House has not escaped that completely. But I would still recommend this game if you are looking for a more traditional board game experience with heavy WWII chrome and flavorings and a more cinematic approach to the defense if the city. But if you are looking for a bit more control over events and units and an experience that simulates the greater battle at large, you may have to look elsewhere.

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