My own personal collection of board games is divided roughly into two halves. On the one side are the dozens of titles that I have distinct memories of playing with my family and friends. On the other side are all my wargames, and very occasionally, I will dust them. That’s why Undaunted: Stalingrad has me perplexed. It’s a wargame that those closest to me might actually enjoy playing because the mechanics are light, fun, and incredibly fast. But it is absolutely a wargame — a gritty little thing with slick mechanics, the rare tactical gem that requires planning in order to succeed. I simply don’t know which side of my collection it should go on. Maybe in the middle?
Undaunted: Stalingrad is the fourth game in the Undaunted series created by Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson. It uses a deck-building mechanic, whereby players start the game with a short stack of mediocre cards and work to tailor that deck over a number of rounds. The game board itself is made up of a number of tiles, on which sit a number of circular tokens representing military units like riflemen, machine-gun teams, and snipers. Players use the cards in their deck to activate those units, moving them across the map to take objectives and score points in order to win the scenario.
The mechanical system itself is brilliant, one that has been slowly refined since the release of Undaunted: Normandy in 2019. After drawing four cards, players must then use one of those cards to bid on who goes first. The remaining three cards can then be used to activate units. Pull two cards for the same unit, and that unit can both move and fire on your turn. Pull fog of war cards, on the other hand, and your troops will sit in their foxholes while the enemy passes them by. The result is a tense and tactical engagement that lasts anywhere from 30-60 minutes, tops.
Undaunted: Stalingrad does a lot of novel things. The tiles in the game can be damaged, meaning that the concrete building that you used to cover your advance in game one might be flat as a pancake by game four. Every soldier has a name, giving you a personal connection to all the cards in your deck. And — just like a good game of XCOM — when those soldiers die in combat, they’re removed from the game permanently. Additionally, the game benefits from a singular, branching campaign that slowly ratchets up the tension and cleverly adds more units to your reserve pool over time. What initially began as small fireteams fighting running battles in the streets rapidly escalates into a combined arms operation, complete with tanks and artillery that will fill the dining room table.
But, while the mechanics themselves are first-rate, the theme of this game is one hell of a tough sell. Undaunted: Stalingrad is a faithful re-creation of the historical battle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia — a fight that lasted more than five months, and resulted in roughly 2 million combat casualties and hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. Combatants literally crawled through damaged sewer pipes to beat each other to death with their frozen, empty rifles. Many then starved to death.
For wargamers, Stalingrad is hallowed ground. It’s a place we’ve battled over in dozens of different titles, even seen firsthand in video games like Battlefield 1942, IL-2 Sturmovik, and Red Orchestra 2. But while something like Axis & Allies gives players a sense of cool detachment, a gods’-eye view of a massive world at war, everyone gets their hands dirty in Undaunted. And that means fans of traditional board games will have a difficult time choosing between this game’s two utterly deplorable factions. But if players can hold their noses long enough, they’ll find a surprisingly compelling historical narrative and rock-solid strategy gameplay — and a fast-moving campaign that they can easily finish in a single weekend.
Undaunted: Stalingrad will be available starting Dec. 6. The game was reviewed using a retail copy provided by Osprey Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.