Hitler with von Manstein and members of his general staff.
In late autumn of 1941, Hitler and the Oberkommando Des Heeres (OKH) surveyed the enormous gains won during the first dramatically successful months of the German “Barbarossa” Offensive. Russia appeared to be, given the Red Army’s enormous losses in men and materiel, on the verge of utter collapse. Thus, it seemed possible, if not probable, to Hitler and many of his senior generals, that a last offensive blow might decisively shatter the Russian forces gathered in front of Moscow, and that the war could yet be brought to a successful conclusion in its first year. Unfortunately for the German Führer, the fall rains had turned the already primitive Russian roads into quagmires; hence, it was obvious that the panzer divisions would be unable to resume operations until the weather turned colder and the ground had frozen. Nonetheless, plans were made for "Operation Typhoon," a major attack that would jump off against the Soviet capital as soon as mechanized operations were again possible, but before the Russian winter finally brought a complete end to the German advance.
General Hoth (center) directs Panzer Group 3 Advance Toward Moscow
For the Wehrmacht, such a late offensive would create enormous difficulties for the mechanized forces which were already under-strength, worn down, and badly in need of refitting after months of non-stop fighting. Moreover, Hitler and the officers of the General Staff knew that, because of the uncertainty of the Russian weather, such an attack — even under the best of circumstances — was a dangerous gamble. In spite of these concerns, however, a last chance to win the war in 1941 was too great an opportunity to ignore, particularly with Moscow a mere forty miles from the German front lines. Thus, the decision was made to go forward with "Typhoon" in spite of the risks.
So it was that, as soon as the ground froze, Army Group Center’s Third Panzer Group, as well as its Ninth Army, attacked Soviet positions on 15 November. The Second Panzer Group, commanded by Heinz Guderian, attacked through Tula in the southwest on 17 November. The Führer’s plan was a simple one: envelope the Soviet capital from the north and south and destroy the few exhausted Russian divisions still barring the Wehrmacht’s path into Moscow.
After promising initial gains, however, the German offensive soon began to lose momentum. New improved Soviet aircraft started to appear in the sky over the battle area; larger numbers of the superb Russian T-34 tank also began to make their presence felt as the offensive wore on; but most menacing of all, fresh, battle-hardened troops — recently transferred from Siberia — began to show up in ever greater numbers directly in the path of the German advance. A final desperate push carried the Third and Fourth Panzer Groups to within sight of the Kremlin towers only twenty-five miles away, but the German offensive finally sputtered to a halt on 4 December. The Wehrmacht had come as close to Moscow as it was ever going to get, and on 5 December, the attacker suddenly became the defender as a massive Soviet counter-offensive began all along Army Group Center’s front.
THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN: STRIKE AND COUNTERSTRIKE RUSSIA, 1941 is a two-player operational-level (brigade, division, corps) simulation of Army Group Center’s last desperate lunge to capture Moscow in the late autumn and early winter of 1941. The various game counters represent the historical combat units that took part — or that could have played a role — in the actual campaign and its immediate aftermath. The simulation is played in game turns, each of which is divided into a German and a Russian player turn. A complete game turn is equal to two days of real time. The game focuses on the days from 30 September, to 31 December, 1941: the time period during which the major events of the campaign transpired. Game turns in THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN are asymmetrical, and are sequenced, as follows (the German player moves first): Initial Movement (and reinforcement) Phase, Combat Phase, and once combat is completed, the second Mechanized Movement Phase; the Soviet player turn then proceeds with a Movement Phase, followed by a Combat Phase; there is no second movement phase for any Soviet units. At the conclusion of both player turns, the turn record marker is advanced one space, and the next game turn begins.
Battle of Moscow Soviet Counter Offensive, December 1941 Troops supported by tanks.
The actual mechanics of play for THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN, like the other titles in the KURSK family of games, are comparatively simple, but nonetheless interesting. One of this title’s most notable differences from SPI’s other early East Front simulations is that Soviet mechanized units, unlike their German counterparts, have no Mechanized Movement Phase; this is not a trivial difference because it means, in a "nutshell," that Soviet units are incapable of creating a breakthrough and then exploiting it on the same game turn. Other game rules are more conventional. Stacking, for both players, is limited to three combat units per hex. Interestingly, stacking limits apply only at the end of a movement phase. Therefore, there is no penalty to stack or unstack with other friendly units during movement; however, any units forced to retreat because of combat onto other friendly units in excess of legal stacking limits are eliminated. Combat between adjacent enemy units is always voluntary. Defending stacks must be attacked as a unitary whole; in contrast, different units in an attacking stack may choose to attack the same or a different adjacent hex, or even to make no attack at all. Zones of control (ZOCs) are semi-rigid, but not ‘sticky’. This means that, in THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN, all units must pay a penalty of three movement points to move adjacent to an enemy unit, but may exit an enemy-controlled hex at a cost of two additional movement points. Thus, a unit with sufficient movement factors can move directly from one enemy ZOC to another. In addition, ZOCs block both supply paths and retreat routes; however, the presence of a friendly unit in the affected hex negates the enemy ZOC in both cases.
The terrain and movement rules for THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN — except for one significant innovation — are familiar and quite conventional. Terrain types are relatively few, and their effects on movement and combat are intuitively logical and hence, are easy to keep track of. All units, for example, expend one movement point to enter a clear terrain or city hex. All non-mechanized units also expend a single movement point to enter forest or swamp hexes. However, mechanized units — unlike infantry and cavalry — expend three movement points to enter forest and swamp hexes; in addition, all German units must expend two additional movement points to move across an unoccupied and undestroyed Soviet fortified line hex. Rivers, somewhat surprisingly, pose no movement obstacle to either army. In addition, a limited number of Soviet combat units (only) may travel by rail during each game turn. The one truly interesting wrinkle in this simulation’s movement rules is the introduction, for the first time by SPI, of a crude type of ‘overrun combat’ into the initial movement phase of each game turn. What this translates to, in THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN, is a game situation in which German (mainly mechanized) units can potentially attack during both the initial movement phase and again during the combat phase. Terrain effects on combat are also comparatively simple: for instance, units defending in forest, swamp, fortified line hexes, or who are attacked exclusively through unfrozen river hex-sides receive a plus two die roll modification; units defending in clear terrain or even in cities, on the other hand, receive no defensive bonus, at all.
Bagramyan with Vasilevski
Combat in THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN, as previously noted, can take one of two forms: ‘overrun’ or regular combat. These two types of combat differ in only one important respect: units defending against an ‘overrun’ are immediately inverted (they essentially cease to exist for the remainder of the phasing player’s movement phase); at the same time, the ‘frozen’ overrunning units may still attack another adjacent enemy occupied hex during the combat phase; however, once all other combats are resolved, the ‘overrun’ is then rolled just as it would be in the case of a conventional attack.
One ground-breaking innovation in THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN game system was the inclusion, by Jim Dunnigan, of different combat results tables (CRT’s) for the two belligerents — an interesting new design feature that would not appear again until the publication of SPI’s first true monster game: the WAR IN THE EAST, in 1974. As is typical of the KURSK family of SPI games, both of the CRT’s, while different, are still relatively bloodless; although the Russian CRT is more heavily weighted (at least at higher odds) towards exchanges and ½ exchanges than is the German table. However, even in the case of the German CRT, battle odds of 6 to 1 or higher are required before a defender eliminated (DE) result even appears as a possible combat outcome, and most combat results will take the form of attacker retreat (AR); defender retreat (DR); exchange or ½ exchange (Ex or ½ Ex), until very high (8 to 1 or better) combat odds are attained. In addition, all terrain, supply, and other effects on combat are cumulative. Another intriguing feature of the game system — one that first appeared in KURSK — is that all German panzer and motorized divisions with a combat strength of ‘four’ or greater, when eliminated in battle, are replaced by a weaker kampfgruppe unit. Finally, in the case of retreat results, the victorious player always chooses the retreat route for all defeated enemy units.
German 88mm gun crew keeping warm.
The supply rules for THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN impose very different requirements on the two sides. German units are in supply if they are able to trace a supply path of twelve or fewer hexes to a rebuilt rail line that connects via unbroken rail hexes to the south or west edge of the game map. For a Soviet unit to be in supply, it must be within six hexes of an unblocked normal or repaired rail line. Supply effects for both sides are identical: unsupplied units are halved (fractions rounded down) for both movement and combat (fractions retained); ZOCs are unaffected. As an important adjunct to the supply rules, each side has EB (railroad repair) units which allow the players to repair rail breaks caused by enemy units, and also to advance railroad supply heads forward as rail hexes are repaired (in the case of the Russians) or rebuilt (in the case of the Germans). The Russians have a permanent contingent of twelve EB units that, if any are eliminated, are immediately brought back into play on the next game turn. The Germans are in a much more difficult situation: they always start with only three EB units, and if any of these are destroyed by the Soviets, these valuable units are permanently removed from the game map.
Battle of Moscow Soviet Siberian soldiers
Besides the rules already described, THE MOSCOW CAMPIGN also includes a number of special rules cases that both add to the simulation value and the historical "feel" of the game. For example, rules relating to weather and its changing effects on movement and combat play an important role in the game. In addition, the special rules governing ‘bracketed’ units — those units that are able to use their combat strength only under certain circumstances — are important to play, particularly for the Russian player. Also, to prevent unrealistic game strategies and implausible maneuvers, both players are required to maintain a ‘Continuous Line’ from the north to south edges of the game map at all times; should any gaps appear in one or the other of the opposing armies’ fronts, then the offending player gives up victory points in direct proportion to the size and duration of the gap in his line. In addition, to reflect the extensive ‘prepared works’ that the Soviets had rushed to establish in front of Moscow, the Russian player begins the game with a series of ‘defensive belts’ of fortified hexes which all serve, until they are destroyed by the Germans, to improve Soviet defensive capabilities and to impede German movement. Interestingly, the German CRT in THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN, like that in SPI’s BREAKOUT & PURSUIT (1972), also includes a special attacker disrupted (Ad) result which essentially freezes some or all of the attacking units for one complete game turn. Finally, depending on the game situation, the German player may be allowed to return one eliminated 2-5 infantry division to play during the reinforcement phase of each game turn.
The winner of THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN is determined at game end by a comparison of the opposing sides’ victory points, and players may — depending on their accumulated victory points — achieve one of three victory levels: marginal, strategic, or decisive. Both players accrue victory points for the destruction of enemy combat units and through the capture and/or control of various geographical objectives on the game map.
THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN offers twenty-four separate scenarios which differ from each other in game length, available starting forces, and reinforcement schedules. There are, for example, four full-length, September – December Campaign (31 turn) scenarios. In addition, the game offers twenty shorter game options of varying lengths. These include: ten different September scenarios (8 game turns); three November scenarios (8 game turns); three November-December scenarios (16 turns); and four December scenarios (8 game turns). There are no ‘Optional’ rules.
A PERSONAL OBSERVATION
Battle of Moscow T34 Tank parades in Red Square November 7, 1941 before deploying to the front.
THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN was, for quite some time, one of my favorite SPI East Front games. In fact, I liked the game so much that I invested hours in attempting to reconstruct the opposing ‘orders of battle’ and then in annotating my game counters with army and, in the case of the German units, corps designations. I suppose that in those bygone days, I must have had a lot more time than sense. Purely from a historical standpoint, the battle for Moscow was one of the great struggles of the War in the East and, at least in the eyes of Heinz Guderian, the German failure in front of the Russian capital — not the later battles at Stalingrad or Kursk — was the turning point of the entire war. Thus, the game situation, not surprisingly, has everything: an exhausted German army attacking in bad weather and at (and beyond) the limit of its logistical support; and a desperate, tenacious defender who is simply trying to hold on until weather and reinforcements can turn the tide. In short, it is one of SPI’s best and most challenging East Front ‘slug fests’.
THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN also occupies an interesting niche in the history of wargaming. It is one of a set of four, KURSK based, SPI East Front games that, in their day, laid the groundwork for many of the World War II games that followed. Each of these early titles was similar in concept and each simulated a critical juncture during a different year of the Russo-German War. Thus, THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN (1972) modeled critical events in the closing months of 1941; TURNING POINT: THE BATTLE OF STALINGRAD (1972) covered the decisive German defeat on the Volga in the winter of 1942-43; KURSK (1971) simulated the German "Zitadelle" Offensive and the Russian counterblow in the summer of 1943; and THE DESTRUCTION OF ARMY GROUP CENTER (1973) examined the Soviet summer offensive in 1944, "Operation Bagration", which more-or-less destroyed an entire German Army Group. In 1974, SPI published its first true monster game, the WAR IN THE EAST, which simulated the entire Russo-German War, 1941-45. Based on the established and highly popular KURSK Game System, Dunnigan’s East Front ‘super-game’ was — except for the introduction of an ingenious new Russian Production subroutine — basically these four earlier designs combined, refined, and then writ large.
By today’s standards, of course, the graphics for all of the early SPI games, including WAR IN THE EAST (1st Ed.), are plain, if not downright primitive. However, they are all relatively easy to learn (the rules are almost always logical, well-written, and clear) and, for all their faults, they are also still challenging and enjoyable to play. Thus, it is disappointing to see contemporary players dismiss these venerable classics without giving them a serious look. I think that they’re making a mistake. Of course, the newer World War II games are, virtually without exception, more visually attractive, more detailed, and often much more accurate in both their treatments of terrain and of ‘Orders of Battle’. But despite these newer games’ wonderful graphics, voluminous rules, and denser game systems, they often seem to lack something that the early SPI games nearly all have: a clear-cut point of view. In short, the early SPI games present the opposing players with a clearly-defined simulation problem. If you find the problem intriguing, you will probably like the game; if you don’t, you simply go on to something else. Thus, players might disagree with the SPI designer — usually Jim Dunnigan — as to the one or two critical factors that actually determined the result of a battle or a campaign, but at least players always have a clear idea as to what the designer thought was central to the historical outcome. Call me old-fashioned, but I miss that concentrated focus and design consistency.
- Time Scale: 2 days per game turn
- Map Scale: 6 miles (9.6 kilometers)
- Unit Size: brigade/division/corps
- Unit Types: infantry, armor, motorized infantry, cavalry, EB (railroad repair) units, and information counters
- Number of Players: two
- Complexity: medium
- Solitaire Suitability: above average
- Average Playing Time: 2½-3 + hours
- One 22” x 28” hexagonal grid Map Sheet (with Soviet and German Turn Record and Reinforcement Tracks, Soviet and German Combat Results Tables, and Soviet and German Initial Forces Charts incorporated)
- 400 ½” cardboard Counters
- One 6” x 11” x 14” map-fold Rules Booklet (with Scenario Instructions incorporated)
- One small six-sided Die
- One 8½” x 11” combined Errata Sheet (as of 31 October 1973)
- One SPI 12” x 15” x 1” flat 24 compartment plastic Game Box (with clear compartment tray covers) and clear plastic Game Cover with Title Sheet
Recommended ReadingSee my blog post Book Review of this title which is strongly recommended for those readers interested in further historical background.
THE WEST POINT ATLAS OF AMERICAN WARS (Complete 2-Volume Set); edited by Brigadier General Vincent J. Esposito; Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. (1959); ASIN: B000MTBTEU