A COMPLETELY SUBJECTIVE COMPARISON OF THE FIRST AND SECOND EDITIONS OF SPI’S ‘WAR IN THE EAST’
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 HistoryThe 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.
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
Railroad Repair Units & Supply
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 UnitsInterestingly, 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
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 RulesAs 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.
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.
CONCLUSIONAt 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.
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 PostsSPI, WAR IN THE EAST, 1st ED. (1974)
SPI, WAR IN THE EAST, 2nd ED. (1976)
WAR IN THE EAST: MESSING WITH A MONSTER, PART I
A Few Recommended Rules Changes for WAR IN THE EAST
WAR IN THE EAST: MESSING WITH A MONSTER, PART II
More Recommended Rules Changes for WAR IN THE EAST
TIPS ON TACKLING THE MONSTER IN THE CLOSET
A SUGGESTED “BARBAROSSA” SET-UP FOR THE RUSSIANS IN “WAR IN THE EAST 2nd EDITION”
SPI, WAR IN THE WEST (1976)
Recommended ReadingSee 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