Pavlov's House: a solo board game AAR

So, I’m pretty sure we all miss Tom’s boardgame videos, especially the series he had at the beginning of the Chinese Wuhan virus times when he recruited the likes of Calendar Bear and Robo-Elk. But I can’t fix Tom’s voice, or play superhero or zombie boardgames. All three of those things are equally impossible for me. But I can give us a boardgame playthrough (which I’ve labeled AAR for the search bots) so we can take solace in faint echoes of individual days coming off a calendar in black Sharpie.

The game I have chosen is Pavlov’s House by David Thompson, about Soviet soldiers defending a single house in WW2. David has also designed a game called Castle Itter (based on the book The Last Battle) about American soldiers defending a single castle in WW2, and in November will be launching a Kickstarter for a game called Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms about Polish soldiers defending a single post office in WW2. If you see a pattern here, let me know because for the life of me I can’t find one. He has also designed some other stuff, including Undaunted: Normandy (with Trevor Benjamin) and a past/future game called For What Remains, a super historical look at skirmish combat in apocalyptic times.

Pavlov’s House is a pretty famous place for people who know about Russian houses in WW2. You know it’s a real thing because it has the one thing that constitutes incontrovertible historical evidence, and that’s an Advanced Squad Leader scenario. (There are actually multiple ones.)

It has generated a lot of myth-making during and since the war, and one of the best things about the game so far for me (since I haven’t played it) is the “Pavlov’s House Companion” that is included with the game as a sort of historical background/designer’s notes.

The game itself is basically you fending off waves of German attackers, which if you don’t like history you can pretend are zombies. If you really don’t like history, you can pretend your soldiers are superheroes and give them names like Maximgun Man and The Wasp. Since you are playing the defenders, you get counters for the individual soldiers who fought in the battle. However, since the game was a Kickstarter, it had to have something you could pay extra for, so for double the price you could get your name and likeness on a counter and pretend that you were one of the heroes of the Spanish-American War.

I backed at that level, but then forgot to send in my preferred name and picture for the counter. So Dan Verssen discreetly named me “Bruce” and found a rather stunning likeness to include:

Well worth the extra forty bucks!

Because this is a forum game, I am going to include this counter in my playthrough. There are exactly 34 historical soldiers in the game. I chose one who not only looks exactly like me, but has exactly my special abilities and traits, and replaced him. Now I can pretend I was one of the brave defenders of the Alamo as well.

I am a dead ringer for that guy!

I’ll have the opening setup and first turn in a little while, as soon as I get all these pics sorted.

Poor Sukba, warming the bench yet again.

Sukba is Russian for Bruce.

Ok, so what the heck happens in this game? Basically, some guys sit in a house. In the USSR. There are six tracks that approach the house, which incredibly, miraculously, corresponds to the number of faces on a d6. You cycle through a deck of Germans. The deck does things to you, like reduce the defense of the house, attack guys in the house, and place scary Germans on the tracks. If you ever need to place a scary monster on a track, but it cannot be placed because the track is already full of scary monsters, then the zombies get into the mall and you lose.

One of the reasons this isn’t tiresome is that there is another layer to the game, which is the overall operational situation. In Stalingrad, the Germans never got across the Volga River, which is where the Soviets (I don’t say Russians because so many of the soldiers fed into that meatgrinder were conscripted Soviets like Central Asians) placed all their artillery and anti-aircraft batteries. In Pavlov’s House, you have to manage the well-being of the eastern bank assets, because if they are neutralized, you will be cut off from any support. In this way, the game kind of violates the basic wargaming tenet of “who is the player?” He is not the individual soldiers. He is not STAVKA, the supreme command. He is not the division commander of the 13th Guards Infantry Division, whose troops manned the house. He is not an ethereal winter night spirit who is immune to non-magical weapons. He is me, a guy flipping cards and placing tokens. And that’s fine with me.

I made two critical errors when I started this game. The first one was to try and use the Volga Flotilla action to transport supplies without having placed them in the staging area. The second was setting the game up on the kitchen table. As a result, I am going to restart the game now that it is set up down in the wargame room where wives have no power to demand that the table space be cleared for mundane needs such as eating dinner. I’ll have the actual start of the game posted tomorrow.

I’m pretty sure I’ve played this level in Call of Duty.

When does the dog come into play?

Hmm. So far, this sounds like a garden variety States of Siege game.

States of Siege does not currently have a superhero themed game. I don’t think it has a squad level Eastern Front game either. So Pavlov’s House has that going for it.

Mildly intrigued. I’m looking forward to hearing more, especially since it’s been upgraded from the kitchen table. Mage Knight didn’t even make it that far with you!


I’m sure this is a dumb question, but having read through the Atlas Obscura page and photo of the companion, why didn’t the Germans just knock the house down with artillery?

Maybe in the scheme of things it wasn’t that important and the artillery was busy elsewhere or not in a good position?

They definitely tried. The house looks like that from repeated artillery strikes.

Next on HGTV: Knocking Down a Soviet Apartment Building with Artillery; It’s Harder Than You Think!

Ok, we have transplanted the game to a MOAR PERMAMENT locale. First turn coming up.

You are a brave man, setting up a board game in reach of a cat.

I’m a lot more concerned about all the vertical storage in the back.

OMG you too! I thought it was just @tomchick. My ongoing 40-year study of games stored vertically is … that nothing happens. Except that they just sit there. Games I bought when I was twelve and have been in their boxes for decades are entirely unharmed.

The cat does not attack unless you draw her card. In which case, what can you do? The game decreed it.

So I just went and pulled my Panzerblitz box, as it was the first AH Bookcase* game I saw. The game has 352 individual counters, which I carefully arranged into the provided flat tray. (Probably when Reagan was in the Oval Office, but let’s not dwell.) If I were to stand it on end, I would have to sort a significant portion of those 352 individual counters every time I wanted to play it. (Again, let us not dwell.)

*Yes, I know AH marketed these games as Bookcase Games with a clear intent to be stood upright on a shelf. If you want to make an appeal to authority to AH Marketing, be my guest.

Anyway, didn’t mean to get my game storage religion arguments into your Soviet Tower Defense AAR, sorry.

What are you doing using non-locking counter tray lids?? Observe:

So back to the game. It basically works like this:

To the left is the house known as Pavlov’s. This is where you place counters representing individual dudes who defend it.

In the center is the surrounding terrain, by which the Germans advance on the house. This is where the game is won/lost.

On the right are the operational assets on the Volga banks. Note that there are 16 of them, numbered from 3-18. All AD&D players should know exactly what this means.

Yeah, this game obviously needs to be about zombies. I was going to say Hermann Luttmann should have made it, but he already made Dawn of the Zeds, so no need. That operational stuff on the right has piqued my interest, though. It makes me think of the different layers in Thatcher’s War.

But…but…what about warped boards!!!1!? Isn’t it true that if you store a game vertically for longer than 10 minutes, the board won’t lay flat anymore?

Ha, Unamused Cat does not appreciate being used as a test subject to demonstrate that Avalon Hill counters won’t fall onto her!