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HISTORICAL BACKGROUNDHitler and officers of the OKH.
In the late autumn of 1941, Hitler and the Oberkommando Des Heeres (OKH) surveyed the enormous gains won during the dramatically successful first 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, although winter was rapidly approaching, it still seemed possible to Hitler and many of his senior generals that a last offensive blow could decisively shatter the Russian forces gathered in front of Moscow, and that the war might yet be brought to a successful conclusion in its first year. Unfortunately for the German Führer, the fall rains had turned the already poor Russian roads into quagmires, and 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 struck with its full fury and finally brought a complete halt to the German advance.
German sentry near Moscow, 1941.
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 senior 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 deemed too great an opportunity to ignore, particularly with Moscow a mere forty miles from the German front lines. Thus, after their almost superhuman efforts of the summer and fall, the soldiers of Army Group Center would be called upon by their Führer to make one last supreme effort. The fate of the Russian capital, and with it, Stalin’s empire, hung in the balance.
Operation Typhoon’, although hastily organized, lurched into motion pretty much on schedule. 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 in the southwest through Tula on 17 November. The Führer’s plan, now in full swing, 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. Far removed from the battlefield, Hitler and his staff monitored events at the front as they developed by radio and followed the progress of the German attacks on situation maps. No one at the Führer’s headquarters — hundreds of kilometers from the frontlines — could appreciate the real conditions on the ground in Russia. And those conditions, already bad, were rapidly getting worse.
Battle of Moscow, German winter dead during the coldest winter in 40 years.
Nonetheless, Hitler’s confidence, at first, seemed justified; in spite of everything, the winter attacks started well. Unfortunately for the German soldiers actually spearheading the Führer’s offensive, Russian resistance was proving to be much more determined than expected; and, despite promising initial gains, ‘Operation Typhoon’ soon began to lose momentum. The Germans, in fact, were rapidly losing their command of the battle space. To the German officers and men at the front, the cause of their difficulties was obvious. Waves of new improved Soviet aircraft were starting to appear in the skies over their heads; 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 — were starting to show up in ever greater numbers directly in the path of the German advance. Despite these factors, 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 German Führer and his generals could not know it at the time, but the Wehrmacht had come as close to Moscow as it was ever going to get, and on 5 December, a massive Soviet counter-offensive crashed into German positions all along Army Group Center’s front. Only days before, victory had seemed within reach; now the German army, ill-equipped and trapped deep in the snowy vastness of Russia, found itself no longer fighting for new territory or for national glory, but for its very own survival, instead.
Game Turn SequenceBattle for Moscow 1941, first successful counterattack.
WAR IN THE EAST is played in game turns equal to one week of real time. Each game turn is composed of three separate action segments. The primary focus of the game is, as might be expected, on the ground war in Russia; however, air operations also play an important, if highly abstracted, role in the game. Each weekly game turn follows the same rigid pattern of player actions. Thus, a typical turn outline begins with a Joint Air War Turn which is itself composed of two phases: an Air Commitment Phase, followed by an Air Combat Phase. Once any air combat has been resolved, the ‘ground’ portion of the game turn begins. This part of the turn is divided into two asymmetrical Player Turns: a First Player (Axis) Turn; and a Second Player (Russian) Turn. These two player turns can each be further broken down into a sequence of specific game operations. For example, the First Player (Axis) Turn consists of six separate segments: the Reinforcement Phase; the Initial Movement Phase; the Rail and Sea Movement Phase; the Combat Phase; the Mechanized Movement Phase; and the Air Interdiction Phase. The Second Player (Russian) Turn, although similar to the Axis turn, is not identical, but instead, proceeds as follows: Reinforcement Phase; Initial Movement Phase; Combat Phase; Mechanized Movement Phase; Air Interdiction Phase; and (in the Campaign Game) the Production Phase. At the conclusion of the Russian Production Phase, the turn record marker is advanced one space, and the next game turn begins.
Mechanics of PlayBattle of Moscow, factory workers dig anti-tank trenches, 1941.
The actual mechanics of play for WAR IN THE EAST, like the other titles in the KURSK family of games, are comparatively simple. However, because of the sheer size of the game and the number of counters typically on the map at any given time, play is still both time-consuming and challenging. For experienced players, much of the basic architecture of the game is comfortingly familiar. Thus, with only a few important exceptions, most of the game’s rules are quite orthodox. Stacking, for example, is limited to three combat units per hex for the Russians, and four units for the Germans. And as is typical of most of the other games in the KURSK family, stacking limits apply only at the end of a movement phase. This means that 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 units is 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. All units in WAR IN THE EAST except for 'entrained units' (all nationalities), Soviet Arms and Training Centers, Russian antitank and artillery units, and Russian fortified units (0-3-0s) exert a Zone of control (ZOC). Zones of control are semi-rigid, but not ‘sticky’; hence, in WIE, all units must pay a penalty of two movement points to move adjacent to an enemy unit, but may, at any point during movement, freely exit an enemy-controlled hex at a cost of two additional movement points. [As an interesting aside, the cost for Axis units to enter or exit an enemy ZOC is reduced to one movement point during the first two turns of both the "Barbarossa" Scenario and the Campaign Game.] Needless-to-say, this also means that a unit with sufficient movement factors can move directly from one enemy ZOC to another at a cost of four additional movement points. In addition, ZOCs block both supply paths and retreat routes; however, the presence of a friendly unit in the affected hex negates enemy ZOCs in both cases. Non-mechanized units exert a ZOC into all adjacent hexes (except for lake and sea), regardless of terrain; mechanized units, in contrast, do not exert a ZOC into forest, swamp, or rough terrain hexes.
Terrain Effects on Movement
Battle of Moscow, street fortifications.
Not surprisingly, given the scale of the game, a limited number of German and Soviet units may travel by rail or sea during each game turn; however, units using rail or sea movement may not combine this special form of transport with any other type of movement on the game turns of their use. Rail movement may only be conducted over friendly-controlled (and/or repaired) rail lines; sea movement is only possible between friendly-controlled coastal cities in the Baltic (Germans only) or Black Sea (Russians or Germans, depending on who controls Sevastopol). In both cases, the number of units that may be transported on any given game turn is limited. Only one German infantry division or one Russian rifle corps (or three Russian rifle divisions and/or anti-tank brigades) may use sea movement during any single game turn. In the case of rail movement, units may not move during the initial movement phase if they intend to move by rail. All units are eligible for rail movement, but each must pay ten ‘rail’ movement points both to entrain and to detrain in the course of that movement. The ‘rail capacities’ of the two sides, not surprisingly, are different. The Germans may move a maximum of ten division-sized units on each game turn; the Russians may move a maximum of sixty divisions or their equivalents during any single game turn. Soviet corps-sized units count as three divisions, Training Centers count as ten divisions, and Arms Centers count as twenty divisions when it comes to computing the utilization of Russian rail capacity. The rail movement allowance for all regular combat units is fifty movement points during clear and mud game turns; however, during snow game turns, the rail movement allowance of all Axis units (only) is reduced to twenty-five movement points. Russian Training and Arms Centers are a special case: the rail movement allowance for these ‘production-related’ units is always ten movement points.
Finally, the one truly ground-breaking element in this simulation’s movement rules is the inclusion, for the first time by SPI, of modern infantry forced-marches. At the owning player’s option, any infantry unit — except for German Security or Finnish divisions — may attempt, during the Initial Movement Phase, to double its movement allowance by ‘force-marching’. At the conclusion of the movement phase, the owning player rolls a die for each force-marching unit; on a die roll of ‘one’ the unit is eliminated or, if possible, reduced to a battle group. Other than the one-sixth chance of elimination, there are no other requirements or penalties associated with infantry forced-marches.
Terrain Effects on CombatTerrain effects on combat in WAR IN THE EAST, like those on movement, are also comparatively simple. For example, units attacking enemy counters that are defending in forest, swamp, or rough terrain hexes, require the phasing player to subtract ‘one’ from each of his affected combat die rolls. Units defending in clear terrain or in cities, on the other hand, receive no defensive bonus. This die roll modification (DRM) is the only effect that these types of terrain have on combat. River hex-sides present a different problem to the attacker: phasing units that attack through an unfrozen river hex-side have their combat strength halved (retaining fractions). This halving occurs even if the phasing player is conducting his assault using both units that are attacking across a river hex-side, and other units that are on the same side of the river as the defender.
Rules of CombatNazi graves near Leningrad, 1943
Ground combat in WAR IN THE EAST can take one of two forms: regular combat or ‘overrun’ combat. Regular combat is always voluntary and follows a very familiar pattern. That is: it occurs when the phasing player brings attacking units adjacent to an enemy occupied hex during the initial movement phase of a game turn. In these circumstances, attacking odds are computed based on the season (clear, mud, or snow), the supply status of the units involved, the presence or absence of air support, and the effect, if any, of terrain. Once the combat odds have been established, a die is rolled and the result of the battle is determined based on the Combat Results Table currently being used by the attacker. ‘Overrun’ combat differs from conventional attacks in three important respects: first, overrun combat, because it is considered a function of movement, can occur during either the Initial or the Mechanized Movement Phase; second, overruns are considered to occur in the hex actually occupied by the defending unit or units; and third, defending units that are ‘overrun’ are immediately removed from play (they essentially cease to exist for the remainder of the phasing player’s movement phase). The phasing player can conduct an overrun anytime that an attacking stack both can achieve 13 to 1 or better odds against the total strength of the defending units in the target hex and can also expend two additional movement points over and above any other movement costs to enter the hex being overrun. The overrunning stack can never exceed three units, and all three overrunning units must have begun the current movement phase in the same starting hex. In addition, no unit may participate in more than one overrun combat per movement phase; however, phasing units, assuming they have sufficient movement points, may continue beyond the overrun hex and attack other enemy units during the regular combat phase. Also, although infantry units — if they meet all the other requirements for overrun combat — may overrun an enemy hex, they may never conduct an overrun on the same game turn in which they are force-marching. Finally, unlike conventional combat, the supply status of both overrunning and defending units is determined at the beginning of the overrunning player’s movement phase, and not at the instant that the overrun actually occurs.
As should be obvious, given the bloody nature of the game’s various CRTs, combat in WAR IN THE EAST tends to create high levels of attrition for both the attacker and defender. Thus, another, and much-needed feature of the game system — one that first made a limited appearance in KURSK — is that all German divisions and all Soviet corps, when destroyed in battle, are replaced by a weaker kampfgruppe (German) or battlegroup (Soviet) unit. These ‘reduced’ units not only help to maintain a combat presence on the battlefield, but they can also be rebuilt to their full strength, at the discretion of the owning player. Finally, in the case of retreat results, the controlling player always chooses the retreat route for his own defeated units.
German 88mm gun crew keeping warm, Winter, 1942.
Other logistical requirements are just as restrictive. As an important adjunct to the supply rules, for example, each side has 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 converted to ‘standard’ gauge (in the case of the Germans). The Axis player starts both the "Barbarossa" Scenario and the Campaign Game with three railroad repair units; however, additional German railroad repair units appear at specific intervals as the war rages on. In addition, if any German repair units are destroyed as a result of combat, they are brought back into play on the eighth game turn following their elimination. The Russians, like the Axis, also receive varying numbers of railroad repair units depending on the scenario being played; for the Soviets, this number can range from ‘0’ for the "Barbarossa" Scenario to ‘12’ for the Destruction of Army Group Center Scenario. In the Campaign Game, unlike the shorter scenarios, the Russian player has the option of creating — using the same production process that he employs to build his regular incoming combat formations — as many railroad repair units as he thinks that he will need.
Battle of Moscow, Soviet Siberian soldiers.
Along with conventional railroad supply, seaborne supply, in certain limited circumstances, is also possible in WAR IN THE EAST. Russian units occupying a Baltic coastal city within five hexes of any friendly-controlled Leningrad hex are considered to share the same supply state as Leningrad. By the same token, Soviet forces in Black Sea coastal cities are considered to be in supply if: a) Sevastopol is Russian controlled; and b) a second, different Soviet-controlled Black Sea coastal city is able to trace a conventional supply line to the east edge of the map. The supply rules for German units in Finland are a special case. Until the Finnish and German rail lines link up, only one German unit south of the Weather Line may draw supply from Helsinki. In addition, up to, but never more than, five German units north of the Weather Line (Arctic Circle) may draw supply from Helsinki. Finally, it should be noted that the supply range for all units (Russian, Finnish, and German) operating above the Arctic Circle is always three hexes and is never modified because of seasonal changes in the weather.
Air PowerAir power, as already noted, is handled in a highly abstract fashion in WAR IN THE EAST. Instead of the familiar two-piece ‘base’ and ‘aircraft’ units used in games such as KURSK (1971) and TURNING POINT (1972), players are assigned a variable number of ‘air points’, depending on the scenario being played. For example, the Axis player begins the "Barbarossa" Scenario or Campaign Game with twenty air points (this, by the way, is the maximum number of air points that the Axis player may ever have in play), while the Soviet player starts the invasion scenario or the Campaign Game with only three air points.
Flight of Russian Sturmoviks.
As a historical aside, it is difficult to determine what the air points in WIE actually represent in simulation terms. The Luftwaffe, for example, opened the "Barbarossa Offensive" with over forty-three hundred frontline aircraft in theater, so it is possible that each German air point is roughly equivalent to 200 aircraft. The Russians, on the other hand, pose a very different problem. On the day that the German offensive began, 22 June 1941, the Red Air Force had over 11,500 aircraft deployed in forward bases close behind the western frontier. Most of these aircraft were destroyed on the ground by the Luftwaffe during the first hours of the war, but given the thousands of, admittedly mainly obsolete, aircraft that the Red Air Force still had in reserve, it is difficult to determine what a Soviet air point is intended to represent in WIE as regards to actual numbers of Russian aircraft.
In any case, the procedures governing the use of air power in WAR IN THE EAST are surprisingly simple. Both the Axis and the Russian players each have their own ‘air power’ charts which are, in turn, divided into four subsections: a box for Total Available Air Points; an Air Superiority box; an Air Ground Support box; and an Air Combat Table. The Air War subroutine begins with both players secretly allocating some portion of their available air points (from ‘0’ to all) to Air Superiority; if both players have air points assigned to this mission, then the (somewhat cumbersome) air combat phase is executed and any losses from air-to-air combat are removed from play.
German Stuka, JU87-B dive bomber.
Any remaining air points that were not committed to Air Superiority (and were not removed as an indirect result of the immediately preceding Air Superiority combat) can be assigned to Air Ground Support missions, of which there are two types: direct Ground Support; and Interdiction. In the case of Ground Support, a single air point can be assigned by the attacking player just prior to the combat phase to each of his battles; this has the effect of increasing his combat die rolls by ‘1’. If the phasing player, for example, has ten available air points, then ten different battles could be supported in this way. Any air points not used in Ground Support missions may be used for Air Interdiction. Unlike Ground Support, Air Interdiction affects hexes and not units. Each interdiction marker deployed on the map (with a limit of one per hex) has much the same effect on a target hex as a ZOC; that is: it imposes an extra two-point movement penalty on any enemy unit attempting to enter (but not exit) the interdicted hex. Interdiction markers, it should be noted, also impose a five movement point penalty per rail hex on all enemy units using rail movement to travel through an interdicted hex. All Ground Support missions are limited in their range: both types of air operations may only be conducted within twenty hexes of an operable, friendly-controlled railhead that, itself, is connected by an unbroken line of rail hexes to a friendly map edge.
Soviet Production: the “Game within a Game”Leningrad T-34 factory.
If there is one design feature that really sets WAR IN THE EAST apart from other wargames of its era — at least, so far as the Campaign Game is concerned — that feature is the extensive amount of attention given over to Soviet Production. Of course, when playing the shorter scenarios, the Russian commander, like his Axis counterpart, receives new units according to the reinforcement schedule listed on the Turn Record Track; in contrast, when playing the 208 turn Campaign Game, the Soviet player (after the first seven game turns) is required to actually produce the specific combat units that he deems necessary to further his strategic war aims.
It is no exaggeration to say that this ground-breaking Soviet Production subroutine is quite literally, a “game within a game.” Despite this fact, however, the actual process of Soviet Production is surprisingly straight-forward and relies on only four basic elements: Personnel Points (derived from friendly-controlled, but immoveable Russian Personnel Centers); Arms Points (derived from operable Arms Centers); operable Training Centers (the assembly areas where the production process actually takes place); and Time (the number of game turns required for a particular unit to complete the production process). Stated another way, Personnel Centers (major cities) are the source of Russian manpower; Arms Centers represent the manufacturing centers that produce weapons and equipment; and Training Centers are the specific locations (depots) where these two resources are combined, over time, to form individual combat units. When the Campaign Game begins, the Russian player starts with 20 on-map Personnel Centers and five off-map, in Siberia; he also begins play with 28 on-map Arms Centers and 21 off-map; and he starts the game with 12 on-map Training Centers and 6 off-map Siberian Training Centers. In addition to these production elements, the Russian player starts the Campaign Game with a reserve pool of 400 Arms Points.
Trainload of Russian tanks en route to the front.
Beginning on the first turn of the game, new Personnel and Arms Points become available for use based on the total count of those friendly-controlled resource centers that are still operable, multiplied by the Personnel and Arms ‘multiplier’ for that particular game turn. For example, on the first turn of the game, the Russian Personnel multiplier is ‘4’; thus, assuming that the Soviets control all 25 of their starting Personnel Centers, the Russian player would receive 100 Personnel Points, any portion of which he could immediately spend on the construction of new units or save for future production requirements. Needless-to-say, the constantly fluctuating totals of Personnel and Arms Points absolutely requires that the Russian player maintain a written and accurate, turn-by-turn record of these production resources as they come in and are expended. Both Arms and Training Centers are represented by counters and may be moved by rail; Personnel Centers, because they are major cities, are stationary sites printed on the game map. Russian Training Centers are recorded on one of two Training Center Charts. Each Chart is further divided into individual tracks for the different numbered Training Centers (from #1 to #20).
Soviet soldiers being briefed.
The Training Centers, of course, are where the real action takes place. Each Training Center consists of three separate production tracks: a Construction track; a Conversion track; and a Rebuilding track. Each track is arranged in a series of numbered boxes each of which represents one game turn. And since a Training Center can only begin processing one new unit per production cycle, production can only be initiated on a single one of a center’s three tracks on any given game turn. The precise function of each of the separate production tracks is evident in its name: the Construction track makes possible the creation of brand new units (rifle divisions, tank brigades, antitank and artillery units, to name just a few) which are also, in some cases, the building blocks necessary for the production of more powerful units; the Conversion track allows the Russian player to combine several smaller units to form a single more powerful formation (three 1-4 rifle divisions can be combined to form a 4-4 rifle corps, for example) or, alternatively, to convert a regular 4-4 rifle corps into a 5-5 Guards rifle corps; and the Rebuilding track provides the means by which Soviet Battle Groups that have been reduced by combat can be rebuilt to their original strength. Needless-to-say, all of these processes require the expenditure of Personnel and Arms Points; however, these costs will vary greatly from unit to unit. A Soviet rifle division, for instance, will cost 2 Personnel and 1 Arms Point, and require only 4 game turns to build; an artillery unit, on the other hand, will cost 2 Personnel Points and 30 Arms Points, and will require 20 weekly game turns to construct.
This is the central puzzle presented by the Soviet Production Rules in the Campaign Game of WAR IN THE EAST; that is: the challenge, for the Russian commander, of deciding on and then implementing a reasonably efficient production program that both strikes a workable balance between the less-expensive combat units needed on a turn-by-turn basis at the front, and the other, far more costly units necessary to advance the long-term offensive goals of STAVKA and the Red Army. Admittedly, the "nitty-gritty" of the various Soviet Production procedures may occasionally become a little tiresome and time-consuming; nonetheless, the payoff for the Russian player — if only reckoned in terms of simulation value — is well worth the additional time and effort.
"Odds and Ends"Besides the suite of game instructions already described, WAR IN THE EAST also includes a number of specialized rules cases which add a modest amount of extra historical color and texture to the game. For example, extensive rules relating to Weather and its changing effects on movement, supply, and combat have a critical impact on the flow and conduct of WIE. Included in this weather category is the Historical First Winter rule (the effects of which can be guessed). Also, certain specialized types of combat units are available only for use by the Russian player. Thus, Antitank Brigades (which halve the combat strength of any Axis mechanized units attacking the hex they occupy) and ranged Artillery units (which are able to bombard non-adjacent enemy positions by firing over an intervening hex) are only present in the Soviet counter-mix; and both play vitally important roles in the Soviet player’s defensive and offensive operations.
The rules dealing with Manpower are handled in a very interesting fashion in WAR IN THE EAST. Thus, along with the familiar procedures for introducing reinforcements onto the map, there are special rules requiring historically-timed Axis Withdrawals at specific stages in the campaign. And the Soviet player is not immune to certain odd rules prescriptions, either; he must, for instance, regularly build aircraft units whether he wants them or not. Why? Because the rules tell him he must. Not every one of the game’s special rules is arbitrary or unreasonable, however. There is, for instance, a perfectly logical provision in the game for the amalgamation of depleted Kampfgruppen and Battle Groups to form full strength units while in the field; and, in much the same spirit, there are a pair of ingenious procedures, pretty much unique to WAR IN THE EAST, to handle both the introduction of German Replacement Points and the Rebuilding of completely destroyed German divisions. Also, as might be expected in any simulation of the Russian Front during World War II, there are elaborate, but (fortunately) optional rules for both Russian and Finnish Partisans. In addition, the combat operations of Axis Satellite forces in WIE, as was the case historically, are noticeably restricted both in their offensive scope and in their geographical reach. Certain sections of the map also receive their share of special attention; thus, both the Siberian Map Edge and combat operations above the Weatherline are each treated to their own special rules cases. Even units that have been trapped in isolated Pockets are governed by their own special set of rules. Finally, there are a number of restrictions (most of which can be treated as optional) on German operations. These include: Required German Garrisons (six combat factors for each Axis-controlled Russian Population Center hex); the Axis Continuous Line Requirement (the Axis player must maintain a continuous line of units and/or their ZOCs running north-south across the width of the entire front); and the most onerous of all, the Hitler No Retreat rule (the intent of which should be self-evident).
Winning the GameUSSR Victory Parade, Moscow, 1945. German colors on the ground.
The winner in WAR IN THE EAST is determined by the control of certain geographical objectives at various stages in the campaign. Casualties are irrelevant except for their effect on the combat power of the opposing armies. Victory conditions vary from scenario to scenario and are laid out in each scenario’s special instructions. In addition, depending on the battlefield performance of the two belligerents, different types of victory are possible; this means that one side or the other can win one of three levels of victory: Decisive, Substantive, or Marginal; a Draw is possible in several of the shorter scenarios, but not in the Campaign Game.
In addition to the regular game rules, the Campaign Game also offers a number of “variants” for those players who want to experiment a little with alternative (might have been) historical occurrences. These “variants” run the gamut from the plausible to the highly unlikely and include the following player options: Axis Free Set-Up; Axis Satellite Neutrality; Russo-Japanese Conflict; Axis Satellite Early Entry; Axis Early Assault; Increased Finnish Participation; Axis preparation for Prolonged Campaign; Early German War Production Economy; Russian Maximum Build; and Turkish Attack. Besides this batch of historical possibilities, the designer also includes yet additional Campaign Game “variants,” including, among others: Axis Victory at El Alamein; Axis Success in Tunisia; Ukrainian Nationalism; Early Russian Neutrality; Full German Motorization (in my opinion, the most far-fetched of all of these historical ‘might have beens’); No Lend Lease; Russian Air Drop; Black Sea Assault; and No Purge of Red Army Officers.
A PERSONAL OBSERVATIONMarshal Stalin.
Looking back after my many years in wargaming, there are actually only three or four titles that, when I get to reminiscing about the past, really evoke a palpable feeling of nostalgia for the now long-gone “golden years” of the conflict simulation hobby; the first edition of WAR IN THE EAST (WIE) is, in spite of its several, oft-noted defects, one of those titles. When WIE initially became available from SPI, it was not the first commercially-produced monster game to deal with the Russo-German War, 1941-45, on an operational (brigade/division/corps) level; GDW’s DRANG NACH OSTEN! (DNO) had first seen print in 1973, almost a full year before the first edition of WAR IN THE EAST finally came on the scene. However, unlike DNO, which covered only the first period of the war — from June 22, 1941 to March 1942 (UNENTSCHIEDEN, a separate GDW add-on which, in combination with DNO, allowed the campaign to be fought from 1941 through 1945, did not appear until 1974) — WIE covered the entire titanic struggle. Thus, for the true East Front aficionado (and that certainly described me, in those days), it was all there: the initial string of easy German battlefield triumphs during the heady summer of 1941, as the Wehrmacht drove ever deeper into the heartland of the Soviet Union; the first awful Russian winter and, along with the snow, the sudden shock of serious German reversals at the hands of a new, better-equipped, and increasingly powerful Red Army; the Wehrmacht resurgent with the return of good weather in 1942; renewed Soviet offensives in the winter of 1942-43, and the end of German ascendancy on the battlefield in the summer of 1943; the Soviet hammer blows, one after another, in the summer and winter of 1944, and the start of the battered German army’s long retreat west from Moscow and towards the borders of the Third Reich; and finally, the end of Hitler’s dream of an empire in the east as a beleaguered Wehrmacht, shorn of its allies, is inexorably driven back by the Red Army, all the way to the bombed-out streets of Berlin, in 1945.
SS Viking Division in Russia, 1942.
Of course, as already mentioned, WAR IN THE EAST is not without its problems. For starters, the Orders of Battle for the Red Army and the Axis Satellite forces, based on more recent information, are wildly inaccurate. And, to make matters worse, there is virtually no differentiation at all between different units of the same type: thus, all panzer divisions are 10-8s (whether Wehrmacht or SS) and all Soviet Guards rifle corps are represented by 5-5s. Also, it should be noted that the 208 turn Campaign Game, barring incompetence on the part of the game's participants, will virtually never develop along historical lines; in fact, players that transition from the shorter scenarios to the longer game will quickly discover that the Campaign Game battlefield situations (frontlines, force levels, etc.) that naturally arise in both 1942 and 1943 will bear almost no resemblance to those presented in the shorter Stalingrad and Kursk Scenarios. To be fair, this peculiar disconnect between the shorter "mini-games" and the 208 turn Campaign Game does not really detract from the simulation's overall playability; none-the-less, it does raise legitimate questions about some of the assumptions underlying Dunnigan's basic design, particularly among those players with a real penchant for historical accuracy. Unfortunately, these aren't the only problems with WIE: some of the game mechanics seem to be pointlessly obtuse. For instance, the multi-step procedures governing the creation of partisans are surprisingly cumbersome and, when everything is said and done, largely irrelevant to play. In addition, when it comes to the Finns, particularly during mud and snow game turns, the combat rules are — considering the actual events of the Russo-Finnish War, November 1939 to March 1940 — surprisingly friendly to the Soviets. Moreover, the rules governing air-to-air combat, and air operations generally, are so abstract as to border on simple-mindedness. Then there are the weather rules: the game’s rigidly preordained seasonal changes are both utterly arbitrary and completely unhistorical. In fact, because of the absolute predictability of weather conditions during every single turn of the game, the designer eliminates the possibility of any offensive opportunities, for either side, that could otherwise be expected to arise due to the early or late arrival of spring or fall. The railroad repair rules are also grossly inaccurate and biased in favor of the Russians. For example, the rail lines in both Poland and the Baltic States, just prior to the invasion, were still mainly constructed according to ‘standard’ European gauge and not the ‘wider’ rail gauge used in the Soviet Union; nonetheless, these European-type railroads are just as difficult to repair as the wider-gauged rail lines in Russia, proper. And speaking of odd railroad rules and their effect on WAR IN THE EAST: the notorious German Railroad Repair units, of which there are only three at the start of “Barbarossa,” are so obviously intended by the designer (along with the weather rules) to produce a predetermined limit to the German advance during the first campaign season, that more than a few of my friends have ruefully observed that the “Barbarossa Scenario” hardly even requires players, at all.
Red Army mixed column, 1941.
Yet, despite its many flaws, I still have a genuine soft spot for the first edition of WAR IN THE EAST. Admittedly there are a few rules problems. And certainly, because of the sheer number and "cookie-cutter" nature of the combat units, truly clever tactics are virtually impossible to implement in the standard version of the game; in fact, as one of my regular opponents long ago noted: “Except for 1941 and 1944-45, the game (like many of Dunnigan’s designs) has a disconcerting tendency to morph into a replay of World War I, except that in WIE the Germans don’t get to entrench.” His is a valid point. Nonetheless, while I acknowledge all of these criticisms — as well as the many others that have been piled onto the game over the years — WAR IN THE EAST is still, in my opinion, both a great game, and a reasonably instructive simulation of events on the Russian Front, 1941-45. I say this, first, because many of the most obvious rules problems can be corrected with a bit of inventive tweaking on the part of historically knowledgeable, experienced players; second, because the Soviet Production subroutine, all by itself, makes the game worth owning and playing. Not everyone, of course, will agree with this last point, I know. For some players, the turn-by-turn record-keeping, along with the work required to keep the operations at the many Training Centers running smoothly, is simply not worth the trouble. I understand this opinion, even if I don’t agree with it. Admittedly, the repetitive nature of the various Soviet Production procedures can occasionally become a little tiresome and time-consuming; nonetheless, the payoff for the Russian player — if only reckoned in terms of simulation value — is, in my view, well worth the additional time and effort. Even today, very few games allow a player to choose his own long-term goals, and then actually build the military forces necessary to accomplish those goals. This was the first operational-level simulation to truly make complex, multi-layered strategic decision-making both possible and necessary; I would argue that, in spite of its age, it still works surprisingly well as a strategic game, even today.
General Heinz Guderian.
Inevitably, for most experienced East Front monster game players, the temptation, at some point, to compare WAR IN THE EAST to DNO/UNT becomes almost irresistible. The urge to match these two games against each other is understandable, not just because both titles attempt to simulate the same historical event — the Russo-German War, 1941-45, at the divisional level — but also because both games appeared at roughly the same time. I know the feeling; I’ve succumbed to the temptation, myself. That being said, I personally think that such a comparison is probably pretty much a waste of time. This conclusion, by the way, is not based on any particular bias on my part in favor of one or the other of the games. Actually, I have played these two titles extensively — both face-to-face and solitaire — and I still like them both, a lot. However, the two designs are really just too different from each other to make any kind of detailed comparison useful.
German Panzers at the Don River, 1942.
To begin with, DNO/UNT is, at its heart, an operational game. The players (teams are always a very good idea when playing these monsters) really perform the roles — in game terms, at least — of army group (or front) commanders. It goes without saying, of course, that each side will have its own short-term and long-term goals, but the bulk of the decision-making in the game will tend to focus on the operational problems of the moment. After all, it is the tactical ‘chrome’ — the complex interplay of highly specialized units, armored effects, airpower, and terrain — that really makes DNO/UNT a blast to play in the first place. If that weren’t enough, the playing area is so huge, and the movement ranges of many of the units are so great that accurately anticipating the turn-by-turn profile of the battle area will often be well nigh impossible. Moreover, the DNO game system is so dynamic (read: lethal) that attempting to plan for events six or eight game turns into the future will seldom be productive for either side. Granted, the Soviets will, because of their need to constantly build new fortifications in the vulnerable Russian rear areas, typically adopt a more long-term approach to their play than the Germans; but even for the Soviets, flexibility and not rigidity in battlefield operations will almost always be the order of the day. And there is another reason why long-term planning rarely makes an appearance in most games of DNO/UNT: unless the players on both sides are very experienced (and very, very good), the game has an unfortunate tendency to blow-up within the first four to six turns. The DNO combat system, particularly during the first two years of the war, is heavily biased in favor of the attacker, and offensive momentum, once acquired, is extremely hard to blunt. What this really means is that the Russians can ill-afford to make any mistakes at all, particularly during the early game turns, if they want to last long enough to have the chance to ultimately take the war to the Germans and their allies later in the game.
Red Army cavalry in winter, WWII.
The Campaign Game scenario in WAR IN THE EAST, particularly after the first few game turns, will usually present players with a very different set of problems from those intrinsic to DNO/UNT. For one thing, operational issues in WIE are both simple to grasp and easy to execute. Since there is little or no tactical "chrome" built into the game’s combat system, most battles will be straight-forward, toe-to-toe punch-ups. Hence, during at least the first three years of the war, the Russians will deploy along their front in a layered belt of fortified zones; and the Axis — mainly because the victory conditions require it — will methodically batter their way forward against this fortified line, one hex at a time. Moreover, given the nature of this type of combat, attrition will be heavy for both sides; and breakthroughs, if they occur at all, will usually follow a protracted battle in one, or perhaps two sectors of the front. Because of this, major offensives will usually require the opposing sides to feed fresh units into the attrition ‘meat-grinder’ turn-after-turn until one army or the other runs out of reserves, or until the weather changes and the offensive sputters to a halt. Needless-to-say, although the casualties from such extended slugging matches may not be identical to those of the Battle of Verdun, they will certainly seem similar. For this reason, players in WAR IN THE EAST — once the initial turns of the German invasion have run their course — will find themselves taking on the tasks of Stalin and STAVKA in the case of the Soviets, and Hitler and the OKH in the case of the Axis; from this turn forward, there will seldom be an opportunity for players to reprise (in game terms, at least) the roles of senior battlefield commanders like Zhukov or Guderian. This, by the way, does not mean that the game problems that confront the two sides in WIE are any less interesting than those posed by DNO/UNT, only that they are different. And these differences are not inconsequential.
German bombers over Russia, June, 1941.
In my view, what most sets the WAR IN THE EAST Campaign Game apart from DNO/UNT is the fact that, despite its ‘operational’ trappings, it is really a strategic-level simulation — unlike its more colorful GDW counterpart — of the life and death struggle between Hitler's Third Reich and Stalin's Soviet Union. Granted, the players on both sides are obliged to move around hundreds of division and corps-sized counters, but these relatively uncomplicated, if time-consuming, game operations do not alter the fact that most of the truly important player decisions that are made in WIE are concerned with strategic rather than operational issues. In the case of the Russians, for instance, the complex and constantly changing demands of the battlefield force the Soviets to constantly juggle current against future military requirements, particularly when it comes to planning and implementing the critically-important Soviet production program. Because some Russian combat units require as many as twenty weeks to build (and even more weeks to build and then convert), the Soviets have no choice but to take the long view of the game. The Germans, of course, do not have to concern themselves with the same types of production decisions as the Russians, but they do have to allocate incoming reinforcements and, even more importantly, replacement points from their steadily diminishing pool of available replacements to those sectors of the front where they will do the most good. Since clever tactical maneuvers or even operational surprises are pretty much precluded from play by the game’s basic design, both sides are obliged first to focus on specific geographical objectives and then to organize and transport to the front the resources necessary to capture or defend those objectives. Moreover, because of the impact of operable railroads on the supply status of frontline units, the disposition of scarce Railroad Repair units, during the early years of the war, is critically important to German offensive and defensive plans; and during the later years of the war, equally important to Soviet offensive operations.
In the final analysis, WAR IN THE EAST is probably a much better choice than DNO/UNT (or any of its several offspring) for those players who would actually like to refight the entire campaign on the Eastern Front, rather than simply setting up this type of monster game just to admire it. For players who are really interested in World War II combat in Russia, both the SPI and GDW titles can be informative and a lot of fun; however, the far more challenging GDW simulation is just too difficult to play for any except very experienced (and very dedicated) gamers. And even then, it is highly unlikely that a serious attempt by expert teams at DNO/UNT can be nursed much past the 1942 game turns. Thus, it is probably no exaggeration to say that the SPI game’s simplicity is also its greatest virtue; even relatively inexperienced gamers can refight Jim Dunnigan’s version of the "Barbarossa" Campaign, and still have a reasonable expectation that, when mistakes are made (and they will be), the game won’t suddenly blow-up in the players’ faces after dozens of hours of table time.
German cavalry, WWII.
Nowadays, it is common to hear players disparage older monster games like WAR IN THE EAST in favor of newer, vastly more complicated treatments of the same or similar topics. While doubtless, some of these criticisms are valid; in most cases I suspect that the most vocal of these critics have not really mastered any of the games about which they are so quick to opine. For my own part, and after over four decades in the wargaming hobby, I tend to be a little less impressed with a lot of these newer games than many of my fellow hobbyists; and, at the same time, I am also much more inclined to look kindly on some of the older titles. Maybe it is just nostalgia talking, but I nonetheless recommend WAR IN THE EAST (or its updated 1976 version) highly. While it does not offer players the historical color, richly-textured game system, or challenging complexity of a game like DNO/UNT (or FIRE IN THE EAST/SCORCHED EARTH), it is still both an enjoyable and truly playable game. And, since I am in a reflective mood, I will go ahead and add one additional comment: in the course of preparing for our first attempt at DNO/UNT, I and my friends (experienced gamers, all) found ourselves compelled to send off fifteen pages of single-spaced, typed rules questions to GDW. We found that it was simply impossible to actually start play until we had heard back from the ‘Boys in Normal’. In the case of WAR IN THE EAST, on the other hand, this same group of players was able to, among other things: punch out and trim the counters; photocopy and learn the game rules; come up with a Russian starting set-up; plan the initial phase of the Axis offensive; and begin play within a week of actually getting our hands on two copies of the game (one copy for each team). Moreover, I should also note that none of this first band of players ever felt the urge to send a single question off to SPI about the game rules for WAR IN THE EAST. Oh, and what was the outcome of my friends’ and my very first game of WIE? Interestingly, it was a decisive Russian victory! The Red Army managed to hold both Leningrad and Kharkov through the fall and winter of 1941 in the face of wave after wave of determined, but mainly unsupplied, German attacks.
Recommended ReadingSee my blog post Book Reviews of these titles; all five of which are strongly recommended for those readers interested in further historical background. Blog Reviews: Command Decisions, A Genius for War, The Battle for Kursk, Panzer Battles, and the West Point Atlas of American Wars.
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
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WBC Tournament Convention kicks off on 31 July with a host of old and new Pre-Con offerings for those dedicated attendees who plan on arriving in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a few days before the Convention’s formal start date of 2 August, 2010. Among the popular titles to join the regular six early-bird events in this year’s Pre-Convention line-up are long-time favorites: AXIS & ALLIES, 1830, and THE AGE OF RENNAISSANCE. What these new additions mean for Pre-Con players is that, because Bruno Sinigalio’s GrognardCon traditionally offers match-ups in ten different games, early arrivals will now be able to compete in their choice of eighteen separate titles, days before the regular tournament schedule really even begins. All in all, it should make for an action-packed nine days in Lancaster.
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A few weeks ago, I began what has already turned into a very challenging online tournament match with an old adversary: Bert Schoose. Bert beat me like a “rented mule” in the World Boardgaming Championships (WBC) Convention AFRIKA KORPS Tournament quarterfinals in 2008. Now I am facing him again in the current AFRIKA KORPS PBeM Tournament finals, and after only twelve game turns (April – September ’41), he already has my Commonwealth forces scrambling to hold onto their Home Base long enough for the British November reinforcements to finally limp onto the map, three turns hence. The toughness of this finals match with Bert, of course, was to be expected. Both of us had to fight our way through four earlier rounds, so — even ignoring our past tournament history — it was a contest that we were both looking forward to. However, the formal start of this PBeM match also got me to thinking about present-day wargaming, and about online competition, in particular. On the whole, I like what I see. It strikes me that, although traditional wargaming may have contracted a bit because of the growth in popularity of computer and “role playing” games, today’s hobby nonetheless offers more to the typical player than at any time that I can think of in the past. And for that, of course, we should all thank the growth and spread of the PC and the internet.
Bert Schoose plays Joe Beard in the WBC 2008 Quarter Finals. Photo courtesy BPA.
Currently, there are an amazing number of different competitive venues open to the online gaming community. A brief visit to the BPA, ‘Boardgamegeek’, 'Consim.world.com',or ‘grognard.com’ websites, for example, will quickly provide interested players with access to different PBeM tournaments and ongoing game ‘ladders’ that cover a wide selection of both popular and obscure titles. Moreover, online gaming platforms like ‘Vassal’, 'Zun Tzu', and ‘Cyberboard’ (just to name a few) have made recording and exchanging moves more accurate and less time-consuming; and subscription gaming sites like ‘Hexwars’ have made finding opponents more convenient and faster than ever before. In fact, it has probably never been easier for those players who are interested in year-around traditional wargaming to find worthwhile competition. Just as importantly, these online venues have opened up opportunities for newer players to try older titles that they might never otherwise have had either the inclination or the chance to play. This online resurrection of older classic titles, I can’t help but believe, is all to the good.
Of course, when it comes to old versus new games, I may be a little biased. As most regular visitors to this blog already know, I am an erstwhile defender of quite a few of the traditional — admittedly, now out of print and largely out of favor — Avalon Hill, GDW, OSG, RGA and SPI games from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. However, despite my genuine fondness for many of the titles from the so-called “golden era” of wargaming, my current support for these aging classics has very little to do with nostalgia. Instead, I like these older titles because they have, for the most part, stood the test of time; they still offer interesting, clearly-defined, and usually very balanced game situations. And these are design features that seem, all too often, to be in short supply when it comes to a large percentage of the newer, more contemporary titles. This is not to suggest that all of these early games were great, and all of the newer ones are dross; far from it. For example, I would be the first to admit that the graphics of most of these older titles are a little drab — if not downright primitive, or worse — by today’s standards; and, viewed purely as simulations, many of the newer game designs have arguably attempted to do a more thorough and accurate job of modeling history. Nonetheless, it has been my experience that, despite their greater “eye appeal” and their often richly-textured design platforms, surprisingly few of the newer titles really manage to generate the same kind of intense, competitive excitement that regularly occurs whenever older games are fought out between a pair of savvy classics players. Thus, just making some of these older titles available through Vassal, Zun Tzu, or Cyberboard, I believe, exposes a whole new generation of players to what are still great games. In addition, online gaming makes it much more likely that newer entrants into the hobby will be able to find matches with more experienced opponents. This can be a great opportunity, when properly used, for both players to benefit: one by teaching, and the other by learning the nuances of an unfamiliar game. Call me old-fashioned, but, I think that this is an excellent way for aging gamers (like myself and my friends) to help renew the hobby.
WBC 2008 Afrika Korps tournament players enjoy the game, competition, and cammaraderie. Photo courtesy BPA.
The upshot of this is that, along with a few, still-popular gaming conventions, online play has really helped to preserve and expand the hobby. Nowadays, players can go to websites that specialize in any number of different types of wargames: from traditional boardgames, to fast-playing Euro-games, to the rapidly expanding collection of card-driven games. This means that, for the vast majority of players, the great bane of gaming’s “golden years” — finding and staying in touch with like-minded opponents — is pretty much a thing of the past. Wargaming is, and probably always will be, a niche hobby; nonetheless, it is a niche hobby that, despite competition from all sides, has still managed to survive and prosper. Given the many temptations of modern life, that, in itself, is no small accomplishment.
Finally, for those players who, for one reason or another, have been slow to explore the many gaming options currently available online, I have included a short list of links to some of my favorite wargaming sites. Most of these websites are currently listed in the Map and Counters sidebar, but they are presented here, along with a brief site description, to help readers choose those online destinations that might personally be of the most interest. There are, of course, a great many other excellent internet destinations besides the few appearing on this list; however, these recommended links all lead to sites that, I personally believe, are well worth visiting by anyone who is just beginning to explore the almost limitless possibilities of online gaming. So, with that said, here are just a few sites that I think are both safe and well worth a visit.
Probably the site that I visit more frequently than any other, Boardgamegeek.com is a source of information on almost any game you can think of, and on virtually every aspect of gaming, from game components to auctions, to player commentary. Think of it as a huge “virtual” game store.
The host site for the World Boardgaming Championships (WBC) or “DonCon” (in honor of Don Greenwood) to its longtime devotees; lots of info on past, present, and future conventions and convention events; also has links to a large number of BPA sponsored PBeM tournaments.
The host site for the annual Consimworld conventions (Consimworld 2010 recently ended) held in Arizona, every year; also an excellent destination for players who want to chat online with other gamers.
This is one of the two premiere sources for online game platforms; not surprisingly, new titles are being added all the time.
Along with Boardgamegeek, this site is an excellent source of information on almost every commercial wargame ever published. If Boardgamegeek is a “game store,” this site is more like a “library.”
As a commercial, “pay if you play” gaming destination, this site offers both free (SPI’s, NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO) and subscription (almost anything else) online gaming for a steadily expanding number of popular wargame titles.
This is the other of the two premiere sources for internet gaming platforms; and like Cyberboard, new titles are regularly being added to the menu of available online games. Think of it and Cyberboard as two different versions of “Kindle,” but for wargames instead of books.
Last, but certainly not least, warhorsesim.com is one of my favorite internet destinations both for online gaming and as a source for randomly-generated die rolls. In addition, this site also offers a number of other “player friendly” services, such as an “opponents wanted” bulletin board and an online message board for players and watchers to post log entries on games in progress. In fact, my previously-mentioned AFRIKA KORPS PBeM finals match with Bert Schoose is currently running as a turn-by-turn game log at warhorsesim.com.
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OMAHA BEACH is a tactical simulation of the critical first hours of the American landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. OMAHA BEACH was the seventh title in Volume I of the ‘Command Series Games’ — nine different games, in all — offered by Rand Game Associates (RGA) during the first year of the company’s entry into the conflict simulation market. The game was designed by Ken Smigelski and published in 1974.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUNDAmerican troops disembarking a Higgins boat landing craft onto Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944.
In the early morning of June 6, 1944, Allied troops began final preparations to storm the beaches of Nazi-occupied France. By 0500 hours, the seemingly countless vessels that made up the vast naval armada that had escorted the 150,000 American, British, Canadian, French, and Polish troops were all positioned at their debarkation stations opposite the five Allied beach landing zones that would shortly be the focus of the day’s drama. As the sun rose, the conditions for a large-scale amphibious landing were far from optimal: the seas were choppy and there was a strong tidal current running close to the beach. Nonetheless, the decision had been made: Operation “Overlord,” the amphibious assault on Hitler’s “Fortress Europe” — after already having been delayed one day by bad weather — was at last going forward.
German shell carriers during the D-Day invasion.
In the coastal waters off the 7,000 yard wide American landing sector, code-named “Omaha Beach,” the first of the carefully-picked assault teams clambered down into their waiting Higgins Boats; once loaded, the small landing craft circled waiting for the order to begin their final dash through the surf towards the obstacle-littered beach to the south. Omaha Beach was one of two landing zones assigned to the American forces. The other American sector, code-named “Utah Beach,” was farther to the west. Heavy naval bombardment of the German defensive strong-points had commenced at 0530 hours. At 0630 hours, 96 specially-equipped amphibious Sherman tanks, the Special Engineer Task Force, and eight companies of assault infantry — four each from the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions — began their invasion run into their target beach: a narrow strip of dark sand that would, by the end of first day of the invasion, be rechristened with the dubious title: “Bloody Omaha.”
American troops Protestant service, D-Day Normandy landing aboard transport ship.
Obviously, the first turn invasion procedures for OMAHA BEACH are, as the preceding description shows, a little cumbersome. However, the game’s regular mechanics of play, although generally logical, also take a bit of getting used to. Interestingly, the movement rules — although admittedly somewhat unorthodox at first glance — once learned, are probably the simplest element of the game system to remember and use. Instead of hexes, the game map is divided into 192 squares — referred to by the designer as a Time/Space Grid — with movement costs for entry into the next square marked at the sides and corners of each box. Concentration (stacking) is the same for both players: any number of friendly units may stack in a sector, but only two may attack or move into an adjacent square through the same sector boundary. The rules covering terrain effects on movement and combat, although generally logical, are a little confusing at first; not, by the way, because of any baked-in design complexity, but purely because of clumsy presentation. For example, although there are eight different types of terrain mentioned in the game: Beach, Cliff, Valley (Beach Exit), Strongpoint, Village, Road, Clear, and Bocage; only five actually appear on the Terrain Effects Chart. Roads are simply left for the players to figure out. Valley or Beach Exit boxes (which are important to play because they are mined) and Cliff sectors (which block the movement of certain types of units) are mentioned repeatedly in the rules, but are only identified in the post-production errata which — always a bad sign — came packaged with the first printing of the game. Otherwise, once learned, the terrain rules work reasonably well. Terrain effects on fire combat are handled somewhat similarly to those in SPI’s SOLDIERS (1972); that is: the defensive value of the terrain in the sector under attack is used when computing the odds for fire attacks. In addition, a separate melee value for the terrain in the target square is added to the JFD of each defending unit (maximum of two defenders per sector) when attacked by assault. There are no conventional zones of control (ZOCs) in OMAHA BEACH; a design feature that is quite typical of tactical level games. Instead, movement is affected by the proximity of enemy firepower. Thus, units must immediately cease moving when they come within Direct Fire range of an enemy unit. There are three main exceptions to this rule: tanks, which may move freely when within the DF range of enemy units; Bocage, which effectively shields any units in Bocage squares from the movement effects of enemy DF; and units in Row Three sectors which are exempt from this requirement, unless the enemy unit is in Row Two or Three. Finally, because of the time scale of the game, there are no supply rules.
Landing in France, D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Combat in OMAHA BEACH can take one of three forms: Direct Fire, Indirect Fire (German artillery and heavy weapons, and Allied Naval Gunfire), and Assault (melee) combat. Direct Fire (DF) attacks are always voluntary and are conducted using the attacking unit’s JFD value. Interestingly, an individual unit’s DF combat power may be divided — at the phasing player’s option — among different targets, so long as no fractional values are applied against any of the targeted units. The combat power of different firing units may be combined, but only if the target is not also being attacked by ‘split’ fire from any of the attackers. In addition, Direct Fire attacks are limited both by the firing unit’s DF range and by its facing. In all cases, the top edge of the unit counter is considered to be its ‘front’; thus, the orientation of counters on the map sheet is critically important because units conducting DF attacks may only fire at those enemy squares directly or diagonally to their front; in addition, attacking units delivering ‘flank’ or ‘rear’ fire against the side or rear boundary of a defender’s square gain a -1 die roll modifier when resolving their attacks. Village, Bocage, and (under certain circumstances) Slope squares block DF attacks, but combat units (whether enemy or friendly) do not. Indirect Fire (IF) attacks are similar to Direct Fire attacks and, because they occur during the same phase, may be combined with DF. Besides the limitations on which types of units may use IF, the other major difference between this type of attack and Direct Fire is that, unlike DF line of sight (LOS) restrictions, no type of terrain ever blocks Indirect Fire attacks. Assault combat is different from fire attacks in that it involves the attempt, by the phasing player’s units, to enter an enemy occupied sector in order to physically dislodge the defender through melee combat. Only infantry, engineer, and tank units that have not yet fired in the current combat phase and that are also within DF range of an undisrupted enemy unit (or units) may attempt to assault. The game procedure required to conduct assaults involves several steps. First, assaulting units are designated during the phasing player’s fire and assault initiation phase. Next, the phasing player rolls one die for each separate regiment (or its components) attempting an assault against a specific enemy-controlled square. This die roll is matched against the Assault Power (AP) value of the units attempting the attack; if the die roll is unsuccessful, the units may not assault, but may fire normally; however, if the die roll is successful, the units may advance onto the boundary of the target square in anticipation of the attack to come. Although assault assignments are made during the attacking player’s fire phase, assault combat is not actually resolved until the following game turn; this final step occurs — assuming the assaulting units survive the enemy’s defensive fire attacks — during the attacking player’s assault resolution and melee phase. After the melee’s final attack and defense values have been totaled (the combined JFD strength of all attackers versus the combined JFD strength, plus terrain modifiers, for all defenders), assaults are resolved by both players rolling a single die; each player’s die roll is added to their respective combat strength and the higher adjusted number wins the battle. The loser must retreat all units to an adjacent sector where they become disrupted; moreover, this melee result applies, in the case of the defender, even to those units not directly participating in the battle. Units which are unable to retreat are eliminated. Assaults, it should be noted, can be risky for both sides: if the winner’s adjusted die roll exceeds the loser’s by four or more, all losing units are eliminated instead of being retreated. Oddly enough, this type of attack need not actually be directed against an enemy-occupied sector, but can instead be used to escape from enemy units; this is called a Withdrawal and is conducted exactly like a regular assault except that there is no melee combat at the end of the special assault advance. During an individual assault, a maximum of four units may attack an enemy square, but no more than two units may assault through any single sector boundary during a combat phase.
Omaha Beach follow-on wave of American troops.
All fire combat outcomes in OMAHA BEACH, with the exception of Allied Naval Gunfire, are resolved using a single “odds-differential” Combat Computation Chart (CCC). Allied Naval Gunfire (which becomes available on turn five) is a special case: it uses its own Naval Gunfire Table (NGT), and its combat results are dependent not on odds, but on the sector row that the target unit occupies. In the case of both the regular CCC and the NGT, combat results are resolved by a die roll, and there are only three possible outcomes: X (defender eliminated), D (defender disrupted), or no effect. Disrupted units are inverted until the end of the owning player’s combat phase and may not move, fire, or assault until they have been turned right-side up; in addition, the JFD of disrupted units is reduced by two during melee combat. Interestingly, disrupted units that are disrupted again — in contrast to some other tactical games — suffer no further penalty; however, tanks, unlike all other types of units, are eliminated on a D as well as an X combat result.
Reinforced concrete casement, Point du Hoc Normandy. German troops removed the guns to escape destruction from Allied bombardment. Photo taken after D-Day.
As might be expected, given the extensive and detailed records available on the landings at Omaha Beach, the designer has made some effort to incorporate a certain amount of historical ‘chrome’ into his basic simulation platform. Thus, over and above the design elements already described, OMAHA BEACH also includes rules covering, among other things: the variable entry of German Tank Units; Headquarters Units (these can eliminate the need for component units within their command range to roll on the AP chart); German (off board) Divisional Artillery; the submersion of beach sectors due to the Incoming Tide; German Minefields; Anti-tank Units; German Strongpoints (powerful if garrisoned, but irrelevant if unoccupied); and even an abstract rule covering German Entrenchments. All of these rules, although sometimes obtusely written, add something to the simulation. However, one of the more appealing aspects of the OMAHA BEACH game system is the role of Allied combat engineers and the special rules governing their use. These valuable units can be employed in a regular combat role, but their main function is really to clear Beach Obstacles on the first game turn (only) and thereafter, to attempt to clear the German minefields clogging the Valley (Beach Exit) sectors. Only an engineer unit that has not fired or assaulted during its immediately preceding combat phase may attempt to conduct a clearing operation. In addition, the Allied player may make a “maximum effort” with an engineer unit by declaring this intention prior to the German player’s fire phase. If this option is chosen, the prospect of the engineer succeeding in his mission is increased, but with an increased likelihood that the unit will be disrupted or eliminated due to enemy fire.
Rommel inspecting the Atlantic Wall defenses, Normandy, 1944 before the invasion.
The winner in OMAHA BEACH is determined based on the victory point total amassed by the American player at the end of the last game turn. The German player wins by blocking the Allied advance inland and, by so doing, limiting the number of American points gained. Victory points are awarded to the American player for the number of Allied units that manage to penetrate south of the invasion beaches, for Allied units that exit the southern map edge, and for the success of American engineers in completely clearing beach sectors of German mines.
OMAHA BEACH offers only the sixteen turn (5⅓ hours of ‘real time’) Historical Game; there are no additional scenarios. On the other hand, although the game designer has not seen fit to offer any alternative (what if?) scenarios, he has included detailed instructions for those gamers who want to try a highly-structured Solitaire Play system. Finally, there is only one, relatively minor optional rule: Limitations on Firing, which is presented mainly as a device to speed play.
A PERSONAL OBSERVATIONAmerican Stuart tank comes ashore, Omaha Beach, D-Day.
OMAHA BEACH, like many of the other Rand Game Associates titles, is really an eccentric little game. Sadly, it also has one of the most unprepossessing (if not dreariest) game maps that I have ever seen. According to both David Isby and Al Zygier, the map design was actually intended to represent an overhead view of the battle area similar to that of a black-and-white ‘bomb damage effects’ photograph; in this, it succeeds admirably. Unfortunately, the result of this misguided graphics experiment is to present the players with a playing area that is surprisingly reminiscent of a toddler’s first unsupervised session with finger paints: a map sheet that is varying shades of ashen gray, smudgy-looking, and unremitting in its ugliness; unfortunately, a dismal-looking map is not this game’s only flaw. There are others, and they are not insignificant.
The design architecture for OMAHA BEACH is, quite possibly, a bit better than its physical presentation. How much better, however, I am not really sure. In a nutshell, I am in an awkward spot when it comes to criticizing this game because I have only played OMAHA BEACH twice — once as the Americans and once as the Germans — so I am really unclear how the game would hold up after repeated play. In those two “at bats,” I confess that I didn’t find anything about the basic game platform that I really disliked. Therefore, I suppose it is possible that there may well be a relatively decent game buried somewhere in this title; unfortunately, it requires more work than I am willing to invest to dig it out. This is probably too bad, because the game has subroutines that I think are really pretty good: the integrated fire and melee combat systems, for instance, seem to work reasonably well; and I actually like the effect that the ‘engineer’ and ‘drift’ rules have on play. In fact, it is interesting to ponder what a difference improved rules, more visually interesting counters, and an attractive, more detailed map, might have made to players encountering this game for the first time. For whatever it's worth, I know that it would have made a big difference to me. In reality, of course, Rand Associates games were always produced on a shoestring; thus, in view of Rand’s well-known production constraints (a small, two-color map, 72 counters, etc.), the one aspect of the OMAHA BEACH design package that I personally think was a major waste of the company’s resources was the addition of a set of extra rules specifically for Solitaire play. It would have been much better, I believe, if — in lieu of designing a largely useless solitaire system — the designer, Ken Smigelski, had devoted his limited time and development budget to cleaning up the regular game’s most obvious and egregious problems. And adding a few additional scenarios and optional rules to the finished design wouldn’t have been a bad idea, either.
USS Frankfort supporting the Omaha Beach landing.
In the end, I honestly cannot recommend OMAHA BEACH to anyone but a serious collector. I suppose that it might also be a worthwhile acquisition for the player who truly wants to own every last title that was ever commercially produced on the Normandy Invasion. For everyone else, however, I suggest that you give the game a pass. The design may include a few intriguing ideas, and it may even be playable; nonetheless, it is just too nondescript, too visually off-putting, and too carelessly cobbled together to warrant most players’ time. Put differently: as a game, OMAHA BEACH is probably better than it appears on its face, but not really good enough for the typical player to want to own.
Universal ‘Command Series’ Components Required:
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
I also recommend in another blog post Book Review Rommel: The Trail of the Fox: The Search for the True
Field Marshal Rommel; by David Irving; Wordsworth Military Library; Limited edition (June 1999); ISBN-13: 978-1840222050.
Recommended ReferenceThis book is a handy guide of maps for the Normandy landing beaches.
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