Field Marshal Gerd von Runstedt
THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE ’81 is a simulation of the last major German offensive on the Western Front in the winter of 1944-45. Although the BULGE ‘81 project began as a minimally-intrusive effort to develop an improved set of official rules updates (comparable to the rules rewrites that had already been produced for WATERLOO and D-DAY) aimed at correcting some of the most egregious historical inaccuracies associated with Larry Pinskey’s aging design, THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE (1965); once work on the project actually began, however, it quickly morphed into a major redesign of the sixteen year-old Avalon Hill classic. The version of the game that ultimately emerged from this process was designed by Bruno Sinigaglio, with help from Mick Uhl, and published by The Avalon Hill Game Company (TAHGC) in 1981. Interestingly enough, about a year after its launch, Avalon Hill decided to significantly overhaul its recently-published game. This batch of important post-publication changes — which was first described in The General — consisted of a set of major rules modifications, some additional scenarios, and a small number of altered (and even a few new) unit counters (mounted versions of which were, happily for the magazine's subscribers, ultimately published in a much later edition of The General). Needless-to-say, later "second edition" printings of BULGE ‘81 were altered to incorporate these changes into the standard game package.


German soldier in the Ardennes, 1944.
In the closing months of 1944, Allied armies were closing in on the Third Reich from all sides. British, American, and Canadian troops had broken out of the Normandy beachhead and were already pushing up against the Siegfried Line in the West, and in the South, Rome had fallen to the Americans, commanded by General Mark Clark. The news was just as bad from the Russian Front: there an entire German Army Group, under Field Marshal Busch, had been shattered by the Russian Summer Offensive, “Operation Bagration”. In spite of these multiple catastrophes, Hitler had not yet given up hope of reversing the desperate military situation of the Third Reich. Certain that enough time still remained for Germany to turn the tide of the war, the German Führer poured over maps of the various battle areas frantically searching for one last offensive opportunity that might reverse the recent string of German defeats: a battlefield victory that could retrieve the Third Reich’s fortunes long enough for the new German “wonder” weapons to make an impact on the war. In the heavily-wooded section of the German frontier that bordered Belgium and Luxembourg — site of the Germans’ brilliant surprise offensive of 1940 — Hitler finally decided that he had found what he was looking for. The German dictator would attempt to repeat his earlier military triumph by again attacking through the Ardennes. This “all or nothing” military throw of the dice would be Hitler’s last major effort to turn the tide of battle in the west.

Battle of the Bulge, German "Tiger II" tank
The German Offensive, codenamed Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine) jumped off, as planned, at 5:30 am on 16 December 1944, with a violent, hour-long artillery bombardment along eighty-five miles of the Allied front line in the Ardennes region of Belgium. As soon as the barrage lifted, the 250,000 men and 1,100 tanks of Field Marshal Model’s Army Group B smashed into the dazed defenders of this thinly-held section of the American line. The German offensive that would later come to be called the “Battle of the Bulge” had begun. The German plan was a simple one: the initial attack would tear a wide hole in the American front; and, once a hole in the Allied line had been formed, then powerful panzer forces would rush through the newly-formed gap and drive deep into the American rear. These advancing panzers, once they had achieved freedom of maneuver, were to force a crossing of the Meuse River, and were then to pivot northwest to seize the port city of Antwerp before the Allied High Command had an opportunity to react. The surprise German seizure of this critically important Allied supply center would isolate the substantial British, Canadian, and American forces north of Aachen. Hitler hoped that such a major defeat might finally force the Western Allies to accept a separate, negotiated peace with the Third Reich.


THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE ’81 is a regiment/brigade level simulation of the last great German offensive on the Western Front in the winter of 1944-45. On 16 December 1944, three German armies struck the lightly-defended section of the American line running through the Ardennes region of Belgium. The Campaign Game begins with this initial German onslaught on 16 December and continues through the 2 January 1945 PM game turn: a total of thirty-six game turns. For those who are short on time, or who want to look at a “snapshot” of the battle, BULGE ‘81 also offers a collection of shorter scenarios that simulate different phases of the larger campaign.

BULGE ’81 is offered in two versions: the Basic Game and the Advanced Game. The Basic Game is intended to introduce new players to the game system, and to familiarize them with the essential features of the movement and combat rules. The Advanced Game builds on the Basic Game by adding both additional units and additional layers of complexity to the simulation.

In both versions of the game, one player controls the Germans; the other player controls the Allies. The game is played in turns which are further divided into a German player turn and an Allied player turn. Each complete game turn represents twelve hours (AM/PM) of real time. The German player is always the first to act, and each game turn follows a rigid “Igo-Ugo” sequence of player actions. In the Basic Game these are: the non-phasing player’s Support Phase; the phasing player’s Supply Phase; the phasing player’s Reinforcement Phase; the phasing player’s Movement Phase; and finally, the phasing player’s Combat Phase. At the end of this series of game operations, the actions are repeated in exactly the same sequence, but with the players exchanging roles. After the second player completes all of his own turn, the game turn ends and the turn record marker is advanced one space on the Turn Record Track.

BULGE '81 makes use of a hexagonal-grid, four-color map of the area in which most of the major actions of the battle occurred. Each hex on the map equals two miles from side to side, and each hex depicts one (or more) of eight different types of terrain: clear, rough, cliff, forest, river, bridge, road, and town. As might be expected, different types of terrain directly affect movement or combat; and some types of terrain will affect both. Towns and river-lines, for example, confer significant combat advantages to the defender. Cliff hex-sides completely block the movement of all units; river and forest hexes, on the other hand, although completely impassible to armor-type units, may be passed over or through by infantry. In addition, road hexes multiply the movement capabilities of all unit types; for example, both Allied and German mechanized units traveling along roads may always move four-times (4x) their regular movement allowance. In contrast, infantry units are somewhat disadvantaged by the movement rules; that is: the road movement multiples for infantry units are reduced if the moving unit begins or ends its movement phase adjacent to an enemy unit. Also, German corps artillery units have their road movement multiple reduced if they are slated to attack on the same turn that they move.

The Basic Game

For novice players, the Basic Game offers an excellent introduction to the simulation’s essential architecture; it is intuitively logical, uncomplicated in its sequence of player actions and, hence, is relatively easy to learn, even for beginners. Most experienced players, on the other hand, will find the overall game system of BULGE ’81 to be both quite familiar, and easy to master. Movement for both sides can take one of two forms: conventional ground movement, and, as already noted, “bonus” road movement. Stacking is limited to three units per hex, and zones of control (ZOCs) are “rigid”, but not “sticky”. Supply is traced by the phasing player to a friendly road, and then along the road to friendly map edge. Because of their more abundant motorized transport, the first leg of the Allied supply line can be longer than that of the Germans. Supply lines are blocked if they are forced to pass through an enemy unit or an empty hex interdicted by an enemy ZOC. As might be expected, the east edge of the map (at game start) is a friendly supply source to the German player, and the west, and north and south map edges (that is, those behind the current Allied front lines) are friendly to Allied units.

Combat between adjacent units, under most circumstances (more on this later), is mandatory. However, one important difference between BULGE ’81 and its predecessor is that powerful new corps artillery units have been added to the Orders of Battle (OoBs) of both sides. This is not a trivial change. These artillery regiment and brigade-sized formations — just like their infantry and mechanized brethren — can attack adjacent enemy units normally; however, unlike the other combat units in the game, artillery units (excluding the German nebelwerfers) can also be used to “barrage” non-adjacent positions (up to four hexes distant), either offensively (both sides) or defensively (Allies only, unless the German "15th Army Offensive" is cancelled). In addition, players receive a +1 die roll modification (DRM) for each group of 20 artillery factors that participate in a single attack. [This artillery DRM, by the way, is a big help to the Germans in the early going, but once the Allied reinforcements begin to stream in, the Allies’ ability to concentrate 40+ artillery factors against one target hex really shifts the battlefield dynamic over to the Allies.] Once battles have been designated and final combat odds have been determined, the actual outcome of each separate engagement is resolved by cross-referencing the phasing player’s combat die roll with the appropriate odds column of the odds-differential Combat Results Table (CRT). Not surprisingly, given the designer's starting point, the BULGE ’81 Standard CRT is very similar to that of the original Avalon Hill ‘65 version; hence, Retreats, Elims, Exchanges, Contacts (which require the defender to counterattack or withdraw), and Engaged results (which pin defending infantry-type units in an attacker’s ZOCs) represent the full range of this CRT’s potential combat outcomes.

Battle of the Bulge, American soldiers.
Victory conditions in BULGE ‘81, whether for the Campaign Game or for one of the shorter-duration scenarios, are relatively straightforward; simply stated: one side or the other wins — assuming neither player decides to resign — based on the comparative tallies of German and Allied victory points at the end of the last game turn. Players amass these points by destroying enemy combat units, and also — not surprisingly, given the goals of the German offensive — by seizing and holding certain specified geographical objectives.

The Advanced Game

As soon as players have mastered the rules of the Basic Game, they will usually want to move on to the more complicated, but also more interesting Advanced Game. This version of BULGE ‘81 brings a number of new factors into play: some of these factors are important; some are simply interesting, but all add historical color and excitement to the game.

One important change that appears in the Advanced Game is the introduction of a new alternative "Blitzkrieg" CRT to go along with the Standard CRT. This new Combat Results Table can, at the phasing player's option, be used in lieu of the Standard CRT. What this all tends to mean is that, in the Advanced Game, the Standard CRT will typically be selected when the attacker’s goal is either to capture key enemy-held hexes or to cause battlefield attrition; in contrast, the attacker will usually choose the Blitzkrieg CRT when he/she seeks to dislocate the enemy’s frontline arrangements by side-slipping around, rather than pushing straight through, hostile defensive strong-points. Although the opportunities for using the Blitzkrieg table will tend to be limited, it can, nonetheless, be very effective when the attacker's primary goal is to achieve deep, multi-hex penetrations into the enemy rear (say around St. Vith or Houffalize).

In addition to a new CRT, the Advanced Game also introduces a number of other new rules; these include: rules governing the use of tactical and strategic air power; bridge demolition (several bridges begin Advanced Game already "blown") and construction; the success of the German "Fifteenth Army offensive"; and Fort construction (in towns) and Improved Positions (in other types of terrain). Each of these new design features adds more simulation value to the game situation, but at the cost of increased complexity. Also included in the advanced version are rules for the capture of Allied fuel dumps and alternative rules for British reinforcements.

Besides the addition of new historically-based game elements, each turn in the Advanced Game is more complicated and has more player segments than that of the Basic Game. Thus, the player actions required in the advanced version follow this sequence: non-phasing player’s Support Phase; the phasing player's Supply and Fort Construction Phase; the phasing player's Reinforcement Phase; the phasing player's Movement Phase; the phasing player's Combat Phase; and the phasing player's Engineer Phase. As in the Basic Game, each player completes his own set of game operations, and then play proceeds to the next game turn.

Finally, in addition to the standard rules, the Advanced Game also offers a collection of “optional” rules — for those players who want to maximize the game’s color and content — that cover historical “might have beens” as diverse as the German early commitment of the SS Panzer forces, the German airdrop behind American lines, Otto Skorzeny’s special 150th Panzer Brigade, Steilau commandos, additional limitations on British force commitment, and even restrictions on armor in the attack.


American soldiers, Ardennes forest road.
My personal interest in The Battle of the Bulge goes back a long way. The original Avalon Hill game, THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE ’65 — despite its truly ghastly box art, oddly-colored (baby blue and frou-frou pink) counters, and Larry Pinsky’s surprisingly unlucky guesswork when it came to the battlefield’s terrain, the Ardennes region’s road net, and the two side’s Orders of Battle — was, hands down, my favorite game during my early college days. In fact, I probably played the original “brown box” Pinsky version, seventy to eighty times before my enthusiasm finally shifted to titles dealing with the Russian Front. Not surprisingly, other publishers, attracted by the innate drama of the historical situation, also took on the subject with varying degrees of success. For awhile, in fact, it seemed to me that virtually everyone in the hobby who fancied himself a serious game designer had to take at least one “crack” at designing a game about the Battle of the Bulge. In the case of Avalon Hill, it took the “boys in Baltimore” sixteen years, but even they finally got around to publishing an updated and historically much more satisfying simulation of the battle than the fun, but deeply-flawed original.
German grenadiers, Ardennes, 1944 

In BULGE ’81, I think that, considering the origins of his project, Bruno Sinigaglio did a very nice job of modeling the critical elements of the fighting in the Ardennes during the winter of 1944-45. His decision to simulate the battle at the grand-tactical (regiment/brigade) level is hardly unusual, but it is, nonetheless, a scale that seems to work well for this particular battle. Of course if it didn’t, why would so many game designers’ keep returning to it when it comes to the Battle of the Bulge? Admittedly, no dramatic innovations show up in this game, but neither is the game system weighed down by any real design clunkers. [Note: the choice, on the part of the designer, to keep the game mechanics relatively simple was, as Bruno noted later in 'The General', a conscious one: it was aimed at insuring that the new game was both accessible to beginning players and easy to play by mail. That being said, the “Blitzkrieg” CRT can be seen as a way for the designer to introduce some of the simulation sizzle of “mechanized movement” into his design without actually adding an additional movement phase to the game’s relatively uncluttered turn sequence.] In fact, all things considered, the game has a surprising amount of simulation value given the simplicity of its underlying design platform. Bad weather, supply, Allied fuel dumps, the critical importance of bridges and roads to the German advance; in short, everything that a player familiar with the battle might expect to find is present in Bruno’s design.
General George S. Patton
Graphics-wise, Bruno’s redesign is vastly superior, literally in every way, to the earlier version. For starters, unlike of the amateurish (if not downright ugly) cover of the original, the Roger MacGowan box art is actually visually appealing. Moreover, the game’s counters — with different colors for American and British units, and for Wehrmacht, SS, and Luftwaffe units — is a big improvement over the off-putting pink and blue of the Pinsky original. The game map, although a trifle stylized, is unambiguous and does a good job of representing the difficult terrain and hence, the importance of the road-net and certain towns in the Ardennes. The designer’s clever idea of using artillery “fire counters” for keeping track of (offensive and defensive) fire missions is also a nice feature, and one that would have greatly benefited artillery fire allocation in SPI’s ‘WACHT AM RHEIN’ (1977). The Rule Book is nicely done, and the heavy card-stock game charts and tables are clear and easy-to-use. If I have any complaint at all, it is that the Terrain Effects Chart is printed in the Rule Book and not as a separate game chart.

Supreme Allied Commander
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, France 1944
Last but not least, BULGE ‘81 is eminently playable, fast-moving, and, perhaps just as important, can be finished in a single afternoon. Even better, the Basic Game is (with a modest amount of effort) readily accessible to novice players without being too simple to appeal to more experienced gamers; something that cannot be said about a lot of other titles on this topic. In addition, once the Basic Game has been mastered, the Advanced Game contains enough historical detail to please any but the most demanding students of the battle. Thus, although BULGE ‘81 is certainly not my all-time favorite game on the Ardennes Offensive, it is, nonetheless, at least among my picks for the top five; and given the number of games that have been published on this topic over the years, that’s really not a bad showing for a thirty-year old title. And, of course, those diehard players who are really interested in the operational nitty-gritty of this winter battle should probably be playing ‘WACHT AM RHEIN’, or one of its several descendants instead of this game, anyway.

Design Characteristics:

  • Time Scale: 12 hours per game turn (AM and PM game turns)
  • Map Scale: 2 miles per hex
  • Unit Size: team/battalion/regiment/brigade
  • Unit Types: armor/panzer, motorized infantry/panzer grenadier, armored cavalry/reconnaissance, infantry, parachute infantry/fallshirmjӓger, glider infantry, corps artillery, nebelwerfer, commandos, air unit markers, and information counters
  • Number of Players: two
  • Complexity: average
  • Solitaire Suitability: above average
  • Average Playing Time: 3-6 + hours (depending on game version and scenario being played)

Game Components:

  • One (two section) 22” x 28” hexagonal grid Map Board
  • 377 back-printed ½” cardboard Counters
  • One 8” x 11” Rules Booklet
  • One 8½” x 11” Game Turn Record/Reinforcement Track (with Sequence of Play Chart, German Bridge Construction, Commando Recognition, Bridge and Oil Dump, and Strategic Bombing and Air Supply Tables incorporated)
  • One 8½” x 11” German Order of Appearance Chart
  • One 8½” x 16” Allied Order of Appearance Chart
  • One six-sided Die
  • One 5½” x 8½” Avalon Hill Game/Parts Price List
  • One 5½” x 8½” The General Magazine Subscription Ad Slick
  • One 5½” x 7” Customer Response Card
  • One 11¼” x 14½” x 1¼” flat Cardboard Game Box

Blog Posts


Recommended Reading

See my blog post Book Reviews of most of these titles; all six of which are 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
Read On



THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN is a strategic/grand-tactical simulation — based on THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR “concealed movement” Game System — of combat during the last months of the American Civil War. The game was designed by John M. Young, with graphics by Redmond Simonsen, and published in 1972 by Simulations Publications, Incorporated (SPI).


General Ulysses S. Grant
In early March of 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant was placed in charge of all Union armies in both the eastern and western theaters of war. Because of its proximity to Washington, D.C., Grant choose to accompany Meade’s Army of the Potomac and conduct the overall direction of the war while in the field. To handle the inevitable staff work that had to be done in the Union Capital, Grant dispatched the steady but ungifted General Halleck back to Washington to take over the role of Army Chief of Staff. Grant’s hands now free to direct operations against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, Lincoln’s handpicked commander began planning for the Union’s next invasion of the eastern Confederacy. This latest undertaking would be no small task; in the preceding three years, one Union general after another had attempted and failed at the same mission: to lead the Army of the Potomac south across the Rapidan, beat Lee’s army, and capture the Confederate Capital at Richmond. Every previous attempt had failed. This Union campaign, however, would be different: for the first time in the war, Grant would be at the head of the invading Federal army.

During the night of 3 May, Federal Forces, 119,000 strong, moved out of their bivouacs and began to march towards the Rapidan River east of the rebel army’s main positions. Alerted almost immediately that the Union army was moving towards the lower fords east of his camps, Lee confidently ordered the Army of Northern Virginia, numbering almost 64,000 battle-hardened veterans, into motion the next day to meet the familiar and completely expected threat of a Union flanking maneuver to turn his right. The Confederate commander, while he did not discount the enemy threat, was unimpressed. He had defeated Federal armies as large as the one he now faced before — both at Fredericksburg and again at Chancellorsville — and he fully expected, as did his men, that he would do so this time, as well. Unbeknownst to General Robert E. Lee, however, he now faced — perhaps, for the very first time — an opposing general who also viewed the coming campaign with supreme confidence; U.S. Grant meant to march his army to Richmond, and he was determined that, whatever the cost, the Union soldiers that he commanded would not be turned back.


THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN is a two-player division/corps-level simulation of the decisive period — 3 May through 1 July, 1864 — during which the Army of Northern Virginia, under Robert E. Lee, battled tenaciously to block the dogged advance of the Army of the Potomac, led by Ulysses S. Grant, towards Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. This was the Civil War campaign in which the two finest generals of the opposing armies, finally — after three bloody years of war — directly confronted each other across the battlefield.

The two color hexagonal-grid game map represents the region of Northern Virginia in which the historical campaign actually took place. Each hex is 4.5 kilometers from side to side. The map terrain types that actually affect play are limited to Rough, All Sea, Coastal, River Hexsides, and Railroads. This minimalist approach to terrain certainly keeps things simple for the players, but it is a little unsettling to see that the “wilderness” (scrubby woodlands) of the game’s eponymous title actually appear nowhere on the game map. In addition to traditional types of terrain, certain locations are designated as man-made fortifications; however, because these “part terrain/part combat unit” strong points can be reduced through assault, they are — like the regular combat units in the game — further represented by fort counters of varying denominations. Lastly, along with traditional types of terrain, major military and political centers are surrounded by belts (of varying thickness) of shaded hexes which represent the “command zone” of each of these special military/political centers.

THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN is played in “Igo-Ugo” game turns which are further divided into a Union and a Confederate player turn. Each game turn represents two days of real time. The Union player is always the first to act. Each player turn proceeds in the following order: the Reinforcement Phase; the Movement Phase, which is further subdivided into the “First Movement Segment”, the “Hasty Attack/Probe Segment” , and the “Second Movement Segment” (more on this later); and, last but not least, the Combat Phase. Both armies may use either regular ground movement, entrench, or move by rail. In addition, the Union player, only, may transport units by water.

The basic game mechanics for THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN — particularly for those players who are unfamiliar with THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR (1972) or LEE MOVES NORTH (1973) — are unusual enough to be interesting. Zones of control (ZOCs) are “rigid” but only “semi-sticky”; that is to say: units may not move directly through enemy ZOCs, but may enter and exit enemy ZOCs by paying a movement penalty. In addition, since ZOCs do not extend into friendly-occupied hexes, phasing units may gradually ooze through a gap in an enemy line by stacking and then unstacking while adjacent to an enemy unit or stack. Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the game is that, except for leader and fortification counters, all of the units (including dummy and cavalry counters) are inverted unless revealed either by an enemy cavalry probe or as a result of an enemy attack; hence, the importance of the aforementioned “Hasty Attack/Probe Segment”. Cavalry, it should be noted, represents a special case: these weak but flexible units, when inverted, are treated just like infantry for command and control purposes; but, if deployed on the map face-up, they are allowed to operate independently of a friendly leader. In any case, the inevitable effect of the game’s “inverted counter” mechanic is to insure that, unlike most of the other games produced during this period, limited intelligence and misdirection heavily influence the turn-by-turn decision-making of both players.

As is the case with LEE MOVES NORTH, the combat forces for both armies are represented by only two types of units: infantry and cavalry; artillery is assumed to be factored into the combat strengths of the other two types of combat units. Individual Union infantry units are represented as corps; Confederate infantry are divisions. While this design choice makes perfect sense from a playability standpoint, it does prevent the Union player from using his numerical advantage — as Grant actually did during the long siege of Petersburg and Richmond — to thin Lee’s line by continually extending both flanks. Stacking in THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN, because of the game’s scale, is unlimited; however, individual combat units must still pay a movement penalty to stack or unstack when entering or exiting a hex with other friendly units. One final fact regarding the game’s inventory of counters should be noted: because casualties (whether due to combat or isolation) are incremental in nature, multiple counters are included for each historical unit (somewhat like currency denominations) so that “step-losses”, represented by reduced-strength versions of the affected units, can be depicted on the map as soon as they occur.

Supply, given the historical period being simulated, plays its expected critical role in THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN: “unsupplied” units are halved when attacking, and “isolated” units are both limited in combat AND lose a strength point during each game turn that they are isolated. Command and control, as was the case historically, is just as essential as supply to the conduct of combat operations. To move normally and attack, infantry units must be within the “command span” of the appropriate leader. Federal units within two hexes of Grant, and Confederate units within two hexes of Lee may move normally. In addition, units within certain geographical areas on the game map (the “command zones” previously noted), and "face-up" cavalry units may move without leadership, and a single Confederate unit may receive command from Early if it is stacked with the Confederate general at the beginning of the movement phase. No infantry unit may attack unless adjacent to or stacked with the appropriate leader. Units defend normally, however, even if outside of the command span of a friendly leader.

General Robert E. Lee,
painting by Mort Kunstler
Combat between adjacent enemy units in THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN is voluntary; however, an attacking unit or stack may only attack ONE adjacent enemy hex during any “regular” Combat Phase. Moreover, when battles between adjacent opposing forces occur, they are resolved using one of several different “Split Result” odds-differential Combat Results Tables (CRTs). Interestingly, as is the case with another SPI game, THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR, the specific CRT used for each individual engagement is determined by the combat strength of the defending unit involved in the battle. The actual results of combat, in keeping with the historical events being simulated in the game, are attritional in nature; what this means is that the attacker and the defender — except at very high or very low odds — will both suffer strength losses (that’s where the “split result” part comes in). These battlefield casualties, as was noted earlier, are taken as “step-losses”; and regular toe-to-toe slugging matches — just like in the battles that punctuated the actual campaign — will almost always be both bloody and inconclusive.

Victory in THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN is determined, on the basis of the opposing players’ final victory points tallies, at the conclusion of the last game turn. Because of the different strategic objectives of the two sides, these points can be amassed through the capture or occupation of geographical objectives, and through the destruction of enemy combat strength points. Like John Young’s other Civil war title, LEE MOVES NORTH, victory in this game comes in several different “flavors”; hence, different levels of victory ranging from Marginal to Decisive are all potential outcomes. Finally, I feel compelled to note that the game’s victory conditions seem — at least, based on my experience — to be skewed somewhat in favor of the South. This last is not really a fatal defect, but it does lead to a peculiar game anomaly; that is: based purely on the game’s victory conditions, Grant actually lost to Lee in the historical campaign.

THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN offers three different game situations: the Wilderness to Cold Harbor game; the Cold Harbor to Petersburg game; and the complete Campaign game which ties the two shorter games together. In addition, the designer has included a number of what if? scenarios that can, at the discretion of the players, be applied to the various games to vary play or to adjust play- balance. There are no other “optional rules.”


Battle of Cold Harbor
SPI’s THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN, as the preceding commentary suggests, had its genesis in the designs of several earlier simulations of nineteenth century military campaigns. Jim Dunnigan’s design choices for THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR represented a natural, but interesting evolution of the earlier work that he had done on the Napoleonic Wars with LEIPZIG. The introduction of limited intelligence (inverted and dummy counters), and rail movement; as well as step-reduction (both for combat units and for fortifications) added both a greater degree of strategic uncertainty and a much better historical “feel” by more realistically representing the indecisiveness of both operational maneuvers and combat during this early example of “modern” industrialized warfare. However, ingenious though they were, these innovations were only the start for SPI. This new strategic/grand-tactical game system was further modified — in this and the other John Young Civil War title that very quickly followed in the wake of THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR — to include command and control, cavalry, fieldworks, and even sea and riverine movement. Seen in this light, THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN, like its cousin LEE MOVES NORTH, is both an obvious descendant and an interesting improvement over its predecessor. Nonetheless, despite the important changes that have been made to Dunnigan’s original design in order to capture the peculiarities of the 1864 campaign, the basic flavor and built-in suspense of THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR Game System has survived unaltered. Thus, gamers will find that playing THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN — or any of the other titles in this series, for that matter — is often a nerve-racking test of cunning, nerve, and intuition. And the player who is predictable and overly-cautious will quite often find himself at the mercy of a more intuitive and audacious opponent.

General Grant in the Wilderness Campaign,
May 5, 1864 painting by
Henry Alexander Ogden 
THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN is certainly far from perfect: besides the already-mentioned issues with the game map, there are also problems (from a historical standpoint) with the starting positions of some of the Confederate units in the Wilderness to Cold Harbor Scenario. Nonetheless, all in all, I still like the game, a lot. This endorsement on my part, however, does not mean that I would wholeheartedly recommend this title to everyone; quite the contrary: the graphics are bland to the point of outright drabness and the combat system, although generally realistic in its historical “feel”, nonetheless often comes across as simply bloody and inconclusive. That being said, the game does a few things very well. For instance, John Young’s design convincingly demonstrates the critical importance of accurate intelligence, leadership, and logistics for both offensive and defensive operations; it also illustrates the formidable defensive power of entrenchments and fortifications, even if, somewhat perversely, the rules largely undercut the defensive value of rivers by blocking ZOCs through river hexsides. One aspect of the design that, I suspect, will probably disappoint some players is that there are really not a lot of opportunities in the game for genuine strategic cleverness for either side: tactical cleverness, yes; strategic, no. What this all means is that the Union, competently played, will usually move to outflank the Confederate right, and, although “Marse Robert” can send a small raiding force into the Shenandoah in hopes of diverting Union forces away from Richmond, both armies will probably end up arriving on the “Petersburg Line” pretty much on historical schedule. In short, while Grant clearly has both the numbers and the initiative, he will probably not win the game by outgeneraling Lee; instead, his best path to victory will almost always be to use his significant numerical advantage to methodically push his way south and, in the process, grind the Army of Northern Virginia down through one attrition battle after another. Needless-to-say, this game dynamic — accurate though it may be — can be a little disconcerting. Still, it pays to remember that the last year of the war was one of the bloodiest of the entire conflict; and in that sense, I think that THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN, whatever its flaws, does a pretty good job of modeling the essential features of the historical campaign.

Finally, I should also note that THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN was designed by one of my favorite SPI game designers: John Michael Young. This title is only one example of the many games designed by John Young during his relatively short career at SPI. As evidence of John’s versatility, his many designs dealt with historical topics as varied as ancient Rome, the first wide-spread individual use of firearms, the wars of Napoleon, the Crimean War, the American Civil War, and all the way up to, and including, the Second World War and beyond. I confess that — even after all these years — I am still a big fan of almost all of Young’s many games for the simple reason that his designs are usually innovative, interesting, playable, and fun. Thus, in spite of his tragic and untimely death many years ago, John Young has left behind a library of some of the best game designs that, in my opinion, SPI ever published.

Design Characteristics:

  • Time Scale: two days per game turn
  • Map Scale: 4.5 kilometers per hex
  • Unit Size: corps/divisions
  • Unit Types: leader, infantry, cavalry, fortress, railroad, dummy, and information counters
  • Number of Players: two
  • Complexity: average
  • Solitaire Suitability: below average
  • Average Playing Time: 2-3+ hours

Game Components:

  • One 22” x 28” hexagonal grid Map Sheet
  • 255 ½” cardboard Counters
  • One 6” x 11½” map-fold style Rules Booklet
  • Two 11” x 14” identical copies of a back-printed, combined Scenario Set-up Sheet, Combat Results Table, and Supply Effects Chart
  • One 6” x 10” Turn Record/Reinforcement Track
  • One 6” x 12½” Terrain Effects Chart
  • One 4” x 8½” SPI Order Form
  • One small six-sided Die
  • One SPI 12” x 15” x 1” flat-pack style 24 compartment plastic Game Box with clear compartment tray covers and Cover Sheet

Related Blog Posts


Recommended Reading

See 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 .

Also see my blog post Book Review of this definitive three volume work on the officers of the Army of Northern Virginia by Douglas S. Freeman.

Also, for those interested in battlefield maps, the "museum book" collection of historical Civil War maps by William J. Miller, released in  2004, or the atlas compiled by Stephen Hyslop in 2009 of Civil war battlefields are worth collecting.

Recommended Artwork

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General Grant in the Wild...
Henry Alexander Ogden
18x24 Gicl...
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Buy at Art.com
Battle of the Wilderness - Civil War ...
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Read On




When I checked my email a few days ago, I discovered that one of my ‘Map and Counters’ visitors had added a short but intriguing set of questions to the comments section of my game profile of SPI’s WAR IN THE EAST, 1st Edition (1974). My anonymous reader — apparently after comparing the commentary in several of my ‘game profiles’ — wrote the following:

“Based upon your reviews, you like both editions of WAR IN THE EAST, although I sense more of a fondness for the first edition (nostalgia, perhaps?). However, if you could only keep and play one edition, which edition would it be and why? What edition would you recommend to a newbie and why? Thanks”.

As most regular visitors to my site already know, I try to answer reader feedback and questions, both promptly and in kind; that is: I usually add my own notes, within 24 hours or so, to the same post on which the visitor’s comments originally appeared. However, when I started to formulate my response in this particular instance, it quickly became apparent that — if my goal was to actually offer an adequate set of answers to my reader’s several questions — the “comments section” was probably not the place to do so; and that, in fact, any reasonably detailed reply from me should probably take the form of a completely separate post. That being said, the purpose of this essay is to respond to the questions listed above and, at the same time, to also offer my personal views on the pluses and minuses of the first and second editions of WAR IN THE EAST. In the interest of brevity, the comments that follow are predicated on the assumption that the reader already has some basic knowledge as to the differences that separate the two editions of the game. For those readers who are unfamiliar with WAR IN THE EAST or who are just curious about my personal views on these two versions of SPI’s first true monster game, links to both of my previously-published essays on the two editions of the game (along with a few others) have been added at the bottom of this post.

A Little History

The first edition of WAR IN THE EAST (WItE) was brought to market by Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) in 1974. Game Designers’ Workshop (GDW) had already beaten SPI to the punch by almost a year by publishing its own game on the first part of the Russo-German War, 1941-45, DRANG NACH OSTEN (DNO) in 1973; however, in spite of having lost the first heat in the monster game publication race to the upstarts from Normal, WAR IN THE EAST was still an important benchmark for James Dunnigan and the game company that he and Redmond Simonsen helmed. There were actually two reasons for this: first, it represented SPI’s first genuine monster game and, even more importantly, its subject matter gave it an excellent chance of being a commercial winner. And the significance of this second, purely financial angle cannot be overestimated because, in a very real sense, the commercial success of the first edition of WItE virtually guaranteed that it would only be a matter of time before SPI brought out other even more ambitious design projects. The era of the monster game — particularly at GDW and SPI — had well and truly begun.

In 1976, SPI published WAR IN THE WEST (WItW) and WAR IN THE EAST (2nd Ed.), and then quickly followed-up with a mammoth game package that combined this pair of "stand alone" titles into a theater-wide simulation that — besides covering Poland, the Low-Countries, France and Russia — also added the Scandinavian and Mediterranean fronts. Not surprisingly, the eponymous title chosen for this grandiose new SPI simulation of the entire European Theater of Operations was simply: WAR IN EUROPE (WIE). As an interesting little footnote to all this, a revamped second edition (soap-box version) of WAR IN EUROPE was offered by SPI’s successor (following TSR, of course), Decision Games (DG), in 1999; and there is currently serious talk within certain (nostalgic) hobby circles of this mammoth game project being revisited and republished by DG, yet again. That being said, the WIE series — although getting a bit "long in the tooth" — continues to demonstrate a surprising amount of resiliency for a game platform that first appeared back in 1974; it also explains why these two versions of SPI’s treatment of the Russo-German War, 1941-45, WAR IN THE EAST, are still of interest both to gamers and collectors, even after all these years.

Needless-to-say, a lot has happened in the field of wargaming since the mid-1970s; nonetheless, understanding a bit about the back story of the two versions of WAR IN THE EAST, although probably not essential to understanding the ongoing appeal of their shared game system, is nonetheless useful because it helps explain how most of the major differences between the first and second versions of the game actually came about. Looking back on things now, it is pretty easy to see that the somewhat unexpected popularity (and reassuring sales) of the first edition of WItE, based as it was on a “super-sized” KURSK-based game system, insured that the WIE monster games that followed would all stick with the same overall design architecture and game engine; which is to say: maps scaled to 33 kilometers per hexagon; dual phase mechanized movement; weekly game turns; operational-level (brigade/division/corps) combat units; relatively draconian logistical restrictions on ground operations; highly abstracted air and naval rules; and an elaborate production subroutine. Nonetheless, in spite of this goal of inter-game compatibility, there were still certain design changes that were more-or-less unavoidable as soon as Dunnigan attempted to meld World War II combat operations in the west with those in the very different theater that was Russia. And more than a few of these changes turned out to be fairly notable.

The Game Maps

When players examine the first and second editions of WAR IN THE EAST side by side, the first thing that they will typically notice is that the 1974 and 1976 editions’ game maps are glaringly different. For starters, the original version of WItE includes four map sections; the second edition, only three. The reason for this discrepancy, according to sources at SPI, was actually fairly mundane: the designer opted to reduce the number of East Front map sections in the second edition in order to limit the total playing area of the WAR IN EUROPE game map to a large, but (barely) manageable nine map sections. The end result, somewhat surprisingly, is that — although the individual hex sizes in the two games both represent 33 kilometers from side to side — the second edition’s game map somehow gives the false impression that it is different in scale from its predecessor. Another feature of the second edition’s map which represents a significant departure from the earlier version is the use of color to represent different types of terrain. The first edition’s game map is a functional but drab, two-color depiction of the Eastern Front battle area; the second edition’s map, on the other hand, uses a palette of four colors to represent different types of terrain. In this regard, the design of the second edition game map is actually probably both clearer and more attractive to the eye; although, I confess that — for whatever reason (size, nostalgia?) — I actually prefer the simpler, less visually-appealing design of the first edition’s game map, over its replacement.

The Counters

Although the differences between game maps of the 1974 and 1976 versions of WAR IN THE EAST are both obvious and important, they are not the only component features that distinguish the first from the second edition of the game. Thus, while the overall playing area of the 1976 revamped version of WItE is smaller than that of its predecessor, the total number of counters included with the game is significantly greater. By way of illustration, the first edition of WItE includes five counter-sheets (each with 400 counters) for a grand total of 2,000 game pieces; in the case of the second edition, on the other hand, the total number of game pieces increases to 2,400 unit counters. The reason for this increase is fairly straightforward: many of the counter-sheets used in the several independent titles that, together, comprise the WAR IN EUROPE game series are identical; hence, the second edition of WAR IN THE EAST includes a number of unit counters (FLAK, different types of air units, information counters, etc.) which are necessary to the play of both WItW and WIE, but which really serve no useful role when WItE is played as a “stand alone” game. This is not to say, by the way, that all of the second edition’s extra counters go unused when WItE is played independently. For example, the second (1976) edition of the game — in keeping with the historical record — actually includes both a German cavalry division and a fallschirmjäger division in the initial Axis “Barbarossa” invasion force; in contrast, the earlier (1974) edition of the game includes neither of these unit types in its counter-mix but, instead, simply substitutes ordinary infantry divisions for these specialized combat units. In addition, SS mechanized and armored units — which are indistinguishable from regular Wehrmacht units in the first edition of the game — are, in the second edition, differentiated from regular German combat units in two ways. The first is by color: SS divisions in the second edition of WItE are black instead of the standard German field gray. The second difference lies with these units’ combat strengths; that is: SS panzer divisions in the 1976 version of the game are 13-8s versus the standard Wehrmacht panzer divisions (in both versions of the game) which are 10-8s; and SS panzergrenadier divisions are represented by 11-8s, in contrast to ordinary German mechanized divisions which are 8-8s. The second edition of WAR IN THE EAST, it should be noted, also presents modest changes from some of its predecessor’s Axis allied forces (Romania, Hungary, and Italy) by substituting — at least in a few cases — cavalry and motorized units for armored brigades. Finally, it appears that when Redmond Simonsen set about updating the graphics from the original game design, he also decided to alter the colors of virtually all of the counter-sheets in WAR IN THE EAST (2nd Ed.) in an effort to make the newer version of the game more visually appealing. And while this change certainly makes the second edition game pieces a bit more colorful (Russian counters, for example, metamorphasized from a drab greenish-brown to a bright hunter green); whether these color changes actually represent a significant improvement in the overall appearance of the game, in the end, pretty much lies in the eye of the beholder.

Railroad Repair Units & Supply

No discussion of either the first or second editions of the WAR IN THE EAST can really go very far without addressing one of the most controversial (if not downright notorious) features of the game system’s underlying design platform: the — in my view, at least — exaggerated strategic importance of the German Railroad Repair (RR) Units. For those readers who are unfamiliar with this aspect of the game, Railroad Repair Units — by converting enemy rail lines to friendly use — are the only means by which an advancing army’s supply lines can be pushed forward into previously enemy-controlled territory. Moreover, because of the special “severe weather” rules that apply to almost all of the Eastern Front, these units may only convert one enemy rail hex per game turn when operating in Russia; and, as a special operational restriction, German RR units may only convert Russian rail lines during non-winter turns. In game terms, this is actually a pretty big deal because a lack of supply not only halves a unit’s combat power, but also guarantees heavy casualties to any attackers unsupplied at the moment of combat. Needless-to-say, the ability of RR units to extend the maximum reach of Axis supply lines is vitally important — particularly during the summer of 1941 when the Germans are at their strongest and the Red Army is most vulnerable. This also means, in essence, that the total number of Railroad Repair Units available to the German player during the opening stages of the invasion is of critical importance to the first year planning of both sides. In the case of the Axis player, both the Barbarossa Scenario and the (200+ turn) Campaign Game begin with the Germans fielding only three of these precious units; thereafter, the Axis receive a single additional RR unit in the spring of each succeeding campaign year. These repair units, it should be noted, are equally important to Soviet operations once the Russians finally get the chance to launch their own series of major counteroffensives starting (typically) in 1943; however, unlike the fixed number of RR units available to Hitler’s forces, the Soviet high command — at least in the Campaign Game — can construct as many RR units as it wants in order to supply its advancing forces once the battlefield initiative permanently shifts from the Wehrmacht to the Red Army.

As might be expected, the impact of the German Railroad Repair rules on early Axis offensive operations in WAR IN THE EAST became apparent to most players very soon after the game appeared; however, some of the more subtle implications of this facet of Dunnigan’s design really only emerged once the Campaign Game started to see repeated play. As things turned out, within a few months of the introduction of SPI’s opus on the Russo-German War, it became clear that the WAR IN THE EAST was not STALINGRAD writ large. On the contrary, Dunnigan’s game revealed a built-in and somewhat worrisome game dynamic which, instead of rewarding a tenacious Russian defense of Soviet territory (as had the old Avalon Hill standby), actually punished Russian players who attempted to fight for Holy Russia; that is to say: any determined effort by the initially out-classed and out-numbered Soviets to make an early stand against supplied Axis forces (even in advantageous terrain) was not only futile; it was patently suicidal.

Not surprisingly, once a few thoroughly one-sided drubbings had convincingly hammered this fact home, experienced Soviet players began to resort to a defensive strategy that — although counterintuitive on its face — actually allowed them to achieve two important, if seemingly mutually-exclusive goals: the first was to limit and then contain the extent of the Axis advance during the middle and late summer game turns following the German invasion of the Motherland; the second was to significantly reduce overall Russian casualties by largely eliminating the Wehrmacht’s opportunities for supplied attacks against the Red Army’s westernmost forces during much of the 1941 campaign season. In short, bitter experience had demonstrated that — at least when it came to the first edition of WAR IN THE EAST — the only truly viable Soviet strategy for coping with the opening phase of “Barbarossa” was for the Red Army to hightail it far enough to the east that an overrun-proof Russian line could be established that was beyond the reach of both Axis supply and advancing German infantry. Different Soviet players might opt for slightly different versions of this “territory for time” approach, but, in virtually all cases, experienced Red Army commanders began to adopt a defensive strategy during the summer of 1941 that capitalized on the game’s built-in Axis supply restrictions — along with zone of control (ZOC) movement penalties — to keep the German army at bay long enough for incoming reinforcements to shore up the Russian line in late summer and fall, 1941. Not surprisingly, given the rising popularity of this strategy among experienced WItE players, it was only a matter of time before an operational blueprint for this Russian defense finally found its way into the hobby press.

The Oztunali ‘Quick Step’

In Moves #20 (Apr/May 1975), several articles appeared which, when taken together, presented a wide-ranging analysis — with weight given to the strategic goals of both the Russian and German players — of optimal play in WAR IN THE EAST. These articles covered a variety of different aspects of the game, from German and Russian battlefield tactics to the special challenges posed by the radically-new Soviet Production rules, but the most intriguing of these essays — penned by a long-time SPI play-tester named Oktay Oztunali — focused on the critical importance of the Red Army’s opening Campaign Game set-up and on the early actions of Red Army forces during the turns immediately following the German invasion. The early-game Russian strategy that Oztunali advocated — which he christened the “Quick Step Defense” — eschewed virtually all voluntary combat with the advancing Axis juggernaut and, instead, called for the immediate abandonment by the Red Army of the western military districts and a rapid (but carefully choreographed) retreat to a final Russian defense line that could be formed safely beyond the reach of supplied German forces during the period of greatest Soviet vulnerability: the summer 1941 campaign season. Moreover, the logic underpinning Oztunali’s three-point thesis was, it turned out, largely irrefutable. The author's first argument was that, since there was no compelling reason (game-related or otherwise) for Soviet units to be squandered in a futile attempt to defend the western reaches of European Russia, there was absolutely no reason for these units not to retreat as quickly as possible out of range of Axis attacks. Second, because German Railroad Repair Units could advance only one hex per turn along connected rail lines (and then only on “clear” and “mud” game turns), it followed that, once the three Axis RR units had been placed on the map, the Soviets would then be able to precisely predict the maximum turn-by-turn reach of the enemy’s supply lines for the balance of the first year of the war. This knowledge was crucial to long-term Soviet planning because it made it possible for the Russians to set to work organizing their main line of resistance literally as soon as the Germans launched their attacks across the Soviet border. Third, the mandatory (and substantial) losses that were automatically incurred by the phasing player, whenever his units made unsupplied attacks against enemy positions, insured that very few major assaults would be conducted by the Germans so long as Russian frontline units managed to stay out of the reach of Axis supply.

Reduced to its essentials, the Oztunali essay persuasively argued that, when properly executed, the “Quick Step” approach was not just a good Soviet defensive strategy, it was really an almost fool-proof means by which the Russians could overcome the strategic challenges posed by the German army’s powerful early-game advantages in stacking, combat strength, air power, and mobility. And as things turned out, the “Quick Step” article in Moves #20 actually did more than simply present a primer on correct Russian defensive play for the 1974 version of WAR IN THE EAST; it did that certainly, but because of the way that its author exploited seemingly unrelated elements buried in the game system in order to construct his overall defensive strategy, his essay also drew attention to a number of peculiar features of the WItE game engine that had somehow slipped by unnoticed during the title’s original development process.

Of course, to be fair to both Dunnigan and SPI, whenever any new game (monster or otherwise) is first published, it is almost certain that at least a few unforeseen design glitches will crop up once the game actually gets into the hands of the public. Inaccurate Orders of Battle, map errors (some small, some serious), misprinted charts or tables, and — the bane of all wargamers — poorly-worded, ambiguous, or even missing rules cases: these are all common defects when it comes to the initial printings of new games. Therefore, given its sheer size, it is hardly surprising that the first edition of WAR IN THE EAST had its share of all of these problems. However, once the “Quick Step” article appeared in Moves, it was not long before both the Barbarossa Scenario and the Campaign Game began to draw complaints — particularly from dispirited German players — that because their Russian adversaries had started running away from the western frontier just as soon as the Axis attacked, the post-invasion, summer 1941 game turns had increasingly turned into a tedious “snake dance” in which the Red Army — while always taking pains to maintain a four hex gap between the retreating Soviet line and those advancing Axis forces that were supplied — slowly withdrew eastward, a single hex row at a time. Moreover, players complained that not only was this “one hex per turn” pace of Axis advance and Russian retreat ahistorical; but even worse, because of its almost total lack of accompanying combat, it was downright boring. And a simulation of the “Barbarossa” Campaign that, for long stretches in the game, did not actually include any significant combat was not, in the eyes of most players, considered to be a mere design glitch. Unfortunately, in spite of widespread and growing player dissatisfaction with the effects from some of the supply and combat rules in the WAR IN THE EAST, most of the more controversial design problems were never really addressed in any of the many pages of official errata that flowed, in successive waves, on the heels of the first edition’s publication; however, subsequent events would show that these customer complaints did not go completely unnoticed at SPI. James F. Dunnigan was smart enough to realize that, while gamers might put up with a certain number of quirks when it came to his designs, “dullness” was probably not one of them.

The ‘Shock of War’ and Mobile Supply Units

Interestingly, although he never actually acknowledged the validity of many of his critics’ arguments, by the time that the second edition of WAR IN THE EAST appeared in 1976, Dunnigan had come up with a pair of rules fixes which he clearly hoped would undo at least part of the damage done to the simulation “chops” and playability of his original design by the Oztunali “Quick Step” strategy. In the eyes of many of the game’s most determined critics, myself included, these “tweaks” fell far short of what had been hoped for; nonetheless, inadequate though they may have been, they were both still generally acknowledged to be major improvements to the basic game architecture of WAR IN THE EAST.

The first of these changes — which really had no other purpose than to force the Russians to fight (rather than run away) during the first few weeks immediately following the German invasion — was the “Shock of War” Rule. In a nutshell, this new, baldly pro-German rule stipulated that the Russian player — in order to stave off an early defeat — was required to prevent the Germans from capturing a certain number of Russian population centers (PCs) during the first few game turns of the invasion: one or more population centers, for example, on turn one; two or more on turn two, etc. Since four population centers (Riga, Minsk, Kiev, and Odessa) were situated relatively close to the Russo-Axis border, a diminishing number of these highly-vulnerable cities would have to be defended by the Soviets until the “Shock of War” period ended at the conclusion of turn five.

The second, considerably more modest fix, was the introduction of Mobile Supply Units (MSUs) which could be used independently or in concert with friendly Railroad Repair Units to extend the owning sides’ supply lines. The RR units in the second edition operated in a fashion that was virtually identical to that of the original game; the MSUs, on the other hand, were permitted to move one hex during both the initial and the mechanized movement phases. The actual impact of dual-impulse Mobile Supply Units on Axis combat operations, however, was largely negated by a “special” second edition rule that shortened the reach of Axis supply lines during the first year of the war. The addition of Mobile Supply Units to the counter-mix did allow the Germans somewhat greater flexibility when it came to supplying their frontline units, but the actual effect of these new supply units on play during the crucial first summer campaign season turned out to be minimal, at best.

Russian Production, 1st Edition Rules

If there is any single design feature of the WAR IN THE EAST game platform that can truly be described as “groundbreaking”, that feature has to be the Russian Production subroutine. To understand why this is so, it is only necessary to reflect on the handful of strategic simulations of the Russo-German War, 1941-45, that were published prior to WItE. The very first of these early games, Avalon Hill’s corps-level STALINGRAD (1963), made no provision whatsoever for the appearance, as the war progressed, of newly-raised Soviet reinforcements; instead, the only way that the Russian player could bring fresh units into play was to rebuild previously-eliminated corps using replacement points gained via Soviet control of certain key cities. SPI’s army-level BARBAROSSA (1969) added Soviet reinforcements to go along with replacements, but the timing and composition of these new units was largely predetermined before the onset of play. Even GDW’s 1973 monster-scale simulation of operational combat on the Eastern Front, DRANG NACH OSTEN, stuck pretty closely to the same design conventions as BARBAROSSA when it came to new (post-invasion) Russian units and combined a rigidly-scheduled menu of Russian reinforcements with a geographically-based (variable) replacement formula that, when everything was said and done, differed surprisingly little from the rudimentary system first introduced in STALINGRAD, a decade before. That, of course, all changed in 1974.

It is interesting, with the benefit now of 20/20 hindsight, to recall that — in the view of more than a few gamers during the mid-1970s — SPI was considered to be little more than a “crank’em out as fast and cheap as you can, game mill”; nonetheless, like a great many of the other design innovations that appeared during the so-called “golden age” of board wargaming, it was SPI’s publication of the first edition of WAR IN THE EAST (and not the work of some boutique game designer) that finally broke the traditional and hitherto unchallenged reinforcement/replacement design mold when it came to modeling strategic warfare in Russia during World War II. This flash of inspiration on Dunnigan’s part was a genuine breakthrough in game design. Not only did Soviet Production add an extra layer of simulation detail to WItE when it came to the 208 turn Campaign Game, it also introduced what was, for all intents and purposes, a completely new “game within a game” which allowed Soviet commanders, much like their historical counterparts, to construct (over time) precisely those forces that they deemed necessary for future combat operations. Of course, Dunnigan, not being anybody’s fool, still elected to hedge his bets by not using his new Soviet Production system when it came to his design’s individual (more manageable) seasonal scenarios; nonetheless, whether one liked the Soviet Production rules or not, it was absolutely clear that the introduction of this elaborate subroutine had added a fascinating new strategic layer to the simulation architecture, not only of the first edition of WAR IN THE EAST, but of other similarly-scaled games to come.

In some ways, WAR IN THE EAST, given the differences between the quartet of scenarios and the two Campaign Games, really offered several simulation platforms in one package. As those readers who are familiar with the 1974 version of the game already know, the first edition of Dunnigan’s East Front opus offered four relatively short scenarios (Barbarossa, 1941; Stalingrad, 1942; Kursk, 1943; and the Destruction of Army Group Center, 1944) and two versions of the 208 turn Campaign Game (the Historical and the Standard Game). The shorter seasonal scenarios ranged in length from eighteen to thirty game turns and, because of their limited duration, handled the arrival of reinforcements — just like their smaller-scale East Front cousins — by listing both incoming Russian and Axis units’ turns of entry on the scenario turn record/reinforcement track. In game terms, this meant that the special rules that comprised the Russian Production subroutine were only used when players were ambitious enough to undertake the much longer Historical or Standard Campaign Games. However, for those players willing to take on these longer games, the innovative new production rules provided Soviet players with a broad spectrum of different Order of Battle options. This meant that, for the very first time in the history of board wargaming, an individual Russian commander could build precisely those combat units that he thought would best strike a balance between his short-term battlefield needs and his long-term strategic goals. Just as importantly, the addition of the Soviet Production subroutine, while somewhat time-consuming, really did not overload the basic game system; quite the contrary: although the rules section in the first edition of WAR IN THE EAST which covered Soviet Production was fairly long, the actual production procedures, taken individually, were not particularly complicated. In fact, when everything was said and done, Russian Production was really dependent on only four main variables: Personnel Points (manpower); Arms Points (armaments and war materiel); Training Centers (the entry and exit points for Soviet units); and Time (number of game turns required to complete production). [Please note: because Soviet Production is described at some length in a previously-published profile of WAR IN THE EAST (1st Ed.), only a few key features of this aspect of Russian play will be covered here. Those readers who are interested in a more detailed description of Soviet production are invited to visit the aforementioned post; and to that end, a link has been included at the end of this essay.] Utilizing these four production variables, the Russian player could — during the Production Phase of each game turn — perform one of three different operations at each of his operable Training Centers: construction (creation of new units); rebuilding (rehabilitating units reduced in combat); and conversion (converting or combining existing units to form one that is more powerful).

Of course, no game innovation as radically unfamiliar as this one ever appears without provoking complaints from at least a few disgruntled players; and hence, it wasn’t very long before the first edition WItE production rules began to draw a certain amount of criticism. To be honest, most of the complaints leveled at Dunnigan’s new Soviet Production rules were actually relatively minor. There were, for example, arguments over the arbitrary requirement that the Russians build air units (whether they wanted them, or not); quibbles about production costs; and even protests about the number of game turns that were required to build/convert certain types of units. These complaints, although fairly widespread, were also easy for most players to brush off; however, there were two issues that, because they dealt directly with the mechanics of the production process, itself, were a little bit harder to ignore — even for those of us who, in spite of our occasional misgivings, still genuinely liked the game.

The first of these had to do with that great bane of many wargamers: the absolute requirement that, if players opted to play one of the two versions of the 208 turn Campaign Game, careful turn-by-turn records would have to be kept. This built-in recordkeeping requirement derived from the fact that, because the tallies of Soviet personnel and arms points changed with each game turn, whoever was entrusted with running the Russian Production process had no real choice but to maintain the game equivalent of a detailed accounting ledger. Moreover, because the accuracy of these columns of figures was actually relatively important, someone from the Axis side — just to be prudent — had to periodically inspect these written records to make sure that no mistakes had been made. Even many of those of us who really liked the Soviet Production rules had to acknowledge that this seemingly inescapable “accounting” requirement was a persistent and thoroughgoing “pain” for both sides.

The second characteristic of the production process that tended to irritate some players — although it never really bothered me or my regular opponents — had to do with the tedious manual operations required to actually run the numerous Soviet Training Centers. To keep track of the status of each and every unit undergoing some type of production, each Soviet Training Center was represented by an on-map counter and an off-map chart. Each chart, as noted previously, displayed a trio of different tracks which represented one of three production processes: construction, rebuilding, or conversion. The advantage of this system was that it insured that all units entered and exited the production process from the same Training Center. The downside of this system was that it required units on these different tracks to be moved one space during the Production Phase of each game turn. Since a typical game would often see sixteen or more operable Training Centers in play during any given turn, this procedure actually required someone on the Soviet side to perform what I and my friends took to calling the “Training Center shuffle” for every unit on every track during each turn of the game.

As a moderately interesting side note, players who commanded the Germans in the first edition of WAR IN THE EAST also got a chance to perform their own mini-version of the “TC shuffle” by placing and then moving units along the German Rebuilding Track. This special game track, which operated completely independently of both regular German replacements and reinforcements, permitted one eliminated German divisional kampfgruppe to start its own rebuilding process on each game turn. In the case of infantry divisions, rebuilding required 20 turns (weeks) to complete; in the case of panzer and panzergrenadier divisions, on the other hand, 25 turns were required before they could reenter the game at full strength.

Russian Production, 2nd Edition Rules

As soon as SPI rolled out the second edition of WAR IN THE EAST in 1976, it immediately became clear that the design team at SPI had not spent the intervening two years in idleness. Spurred on by Dunnigan’s desire to expand the scope of the successful WAR IN THE EAST franchise, SPI (with a major assist from Redmond Simonsen) had — along with completing the final design and development work on both WAR IN THE WEST and WAR IN EUROPE — also come up with a number of modifications (some minor, some major) to the original WItE game platform.

Although a few additional rules were introduced in the 1976 version which affected combat operations: the “Stand Fast” defensive option, for example; on the whole, most of the minor changes in the second edition were directed towards improving the shorter seasonal scenarios. These modest “tweaks” mainly took the form of adjustments to the two sides’ Orders of Battle, and in the case of the Germans, to the addition (in the Destruction of Army Group Center Scenario only) of Axis fortifications. None of these changes, it should be noted, really affected the play of either side all that much, but they did, nonetheless, add a bit of interesting and very welcome historical color to the four yearly (1941, 1942, 1943, and 1944) mini-games.

The truly big changes in the WItE second edition game platform appeared when it came to how reinforcements and the Soviet Production subroutine were to be handled in the Campaign Game. In the first edition, Soviet Production had been an integral, if time-consuming phase in each and every Russian player turn. In the 1976 version of the game, the Campaign Game turn sequence was adjusted to include a new series of “Strategic Cycles” each of which appeared at the end of every four turns (thirteen per calendar year) on the Turn Record/Reinforcement Track; this modification, in turn, allowed for the somewhat tedious game operations previously associated both with the various Soviet Production processes (more on this shortly) and with newly-arriving reinforcements to be redirected away from individual game turns and into these Strategic Cycles.

The second big change in the 1976 version of WAR IN THE EAST was the elimination of the first edition’s individual Training Center tracks (with a hat tip, again, to Redmond Simonsen, naturally) and their consolidation into a single, virtually error-proof new graphics device — titled, because of its design, the Production Spiral — which required no unit “shuffling”, but which still allowed every one of the Soviet production operations to be clearly and accurately monitored. The concept underlying the display was simple and was based on the newly-added Strategic Cycles. In a nutshell, the Production Spiral chart was divided into thirteen radiating arms, each of which corresponded to a different Strategic Cycle. To use the spiral, the Soviet player simply paid the arms and personnel costs associated with those production processes (construction, conversion, or rebuilding) he wished to initiate during each cycle and placed the units that would ultimately emerge at the end of the process directly on the cycle “arm” that corresponded to their specific production timelines. The beauty of this approach was that, instead of being obliged to move each unit undergoing production along its own track, the Soviet player was only required to adjust the Strategic Cycle marker one space along the thirteen-arm Production Spiral every four game turns. This meant that units undergoing production only had to be handled twice: once when they were placed on the track at the start of their production; and once when they were moved onto the map at the end of the process. Needless-to-say, this change — besides streamlining the typical Soviet weekly player turn — also dramatically reduced the amount of game time required for the Russian player to execute all of the various processes associated with production.

Interestingly enough, along with the modifications to the turn-by-turn mechanics of Soviet Production that were introduced in the second edition of WAR IN THE EAST, a third graphics-based modification was incorporated into the later version of the game that, while not at all significant in terms of the title’s basic design, was nonetheless, a very welcome improvement — in the eyes of almost everyone familiar with the SPI original — over the first edition’s graphics presentation. This modest change was the introduction, in the 1976 version, of brand new (track-style) game charts which at last allowed players to easily and accurately monitor Soviet arms and personnel points’ tallies, along with those of Axis armored and infantry replacement points, without having to depend on written records to keep track of these various points’ constantly-changing totals.

Not surprisingly, given their generally beneficial effects on play, most of the second edition’s rules changes were well-received by fans of the original version of WAR IN THE EAST. However, it should be noted that there was one particular rules change that was greeted by a certain number of experienced players with considerably less enthusiasm, if not outright skepticism, than the others — especially within the ranks of those gamers with a preference for playing the Axis. This was because one effect of the second edition rules, much to everyone’s surprise, was to completely eliminate what many players saw as a small but key aspect of German play in the middle and late game: the ability, over time, to resurrect — using the German Rebuilding Track — a single division (if completely destroyed in combat) on each successive turn of the Campaign Game. Although the actual effect on German battlefield fortunes of a single extra division returning to action each week — when considered in relation to the size of the forces engaged on the Eastern Front — was arguably not great; nonetheless, the elimination from play of 150-170 rebuilt German divisions that this second edition rules change entailed, over the course of an entire Campaign Game, was still not without consequences. Small as it was, this was a surprisingly unpopular change among the ranks of long-time WAR IN THE EAST players, but, for most gamers, it was not enough to seriously undercut the overall appeal of the second edition’s other rules changes.


At last, we come to the end of this review of — in my opinion, at least — some of the most important differences between the first and second editions of IN THE EAST and hence, it is finally time to revisit my anonymous reader’s original set of questions.

First, when it comes to the question of which of the two versions of the game I personally like better, my short answer is that, although there is much about the second edition that I really like, I nonetheless have a strong preference for the first edition over its successor. There are a number of reasons for this and it is quite possible that nostalgia may well be one of them; still, there are other factors which, in my view, are equally compelling. One factor, not surprisingly, is the difference between the two versions’ game maps. On this matter I realize that my opinion tends to differ from that of most of the players I know; nonetheless, bland though it is, I find that I actually like the larger, more detailed, first edition game map better than its smaller, more colorful second edition replacement. However, this is really a minor factor in my overall calculus; and although the overall visual effect of the two sets of maps is certainly one consideration, a far more important factor in my favoring the original game over its successor has to do with the differences between the first and second editions’ handling of the “nitty-gritty” of Soviet Production. For example, in the 1974 version of WAR IN THE EAST, if three 1-4 rifle divisions enter the conversion process at the Rostov Training Center, then that is where they will emerge once they have been converted to a single 4-4 rifle corps. In the second edition, on the other hand, it is perfectly legal for divisions to begin their conversion at Rostov, but reenter play, once the process is completed, at one or more of the Moscow Training Centers. This change continues to bother me enough that, cumbersome and time-consuming though it may be, I still greatly prefer the first edition’s production rules (manual bookkeeping or no) to the simpler, more streamlined Production Spiral approach of the second edition. Finally, I was both surprised and irritated — like a number of other grognards that I know — over the second edition’s elimination of the German Divisional Rebuilding Track. Although the actual effect of this change on the overall dynamic of the game is not great, I still find it personally irksome, even after all these years.

Second, there is the two-part question, raised by my anonymous reader, as to which of the two versions of WAR IN THE EAST I believe that a new player would be best served acquiring for his own game collection; and why? In this instance, my answer to both parts of this question will probably be a little surprising because, in spite of the several points that I catalogued previously, I am still going to strongly recommend that a new player (unless money is no object, or he is a serious collector) buy the second edition instead of the first. The reasons for my complete volte-face on this issue are several, but a good place to start is probably with the purely esthetic issue of graphic design: the various components of the second edition of WItE are simply a lot more attractive and modern-looking than those of the original; hence, they are likely to be more visually appealing to a new player than those of the older game. Another notable advantage of the 1976 edition is that it is compatible with the other WAR IN EUROPE titles, whereas the first edition is not. What this means is that, if a player first buys a copy of WAR IN THE EAST (2nd Ed.) and finds that he likes the game system, he can then, with the acquisition of both a copy of the WAR IN THE WEST game and a downloadable copy of the WAR IN EUROPE Standard Rules, end up with a relatively inexpensive simulation of virtually all of World War II in the European Theater of Operations. Finally, there is one other potentially worthwhile benefit that I can think of that might encourage a new player to acquire a copy of the second edition of the game; that is: it offers a very good basic introduction to the still evolving WAR IN EUROPE Game System. In view of the fact that Ty Bomba and Decision Games are considering re-releasing — at some point in the future — an updated (and hopefully, improved) version of the (1999) WAR IN EUROPE game package, familiarity with the WItE (2Ed.) rules and game system is probably an excellent way for a player to determine whether this expensive new monster game will actually be worth either his hard-earned money or his time.

Related Blog Posts

SPI, WAR IN THE EAST, 1st ED. (1974)

SPI, WAR IN THE EAST, 2nd ED. (1976)

A Few Recommended Rules Changes for WAR IN THE EAST

More Recommended Rules Changes for WAR IN THE EAST



Recommended Reading

See my blog post Book Reviews of these titles which are strongly recommended for those readers interested in further historical background, or just go ahead and get the books:

Book Review: Battle of Kursk , Book Review: Panzer Battles, Book Review: German Army 1933-1945
, Book Review: Genius for War, the German Army ,Book Review: Command Decisions
Read On