War in the East: Shklov’s Labors Lost

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Every war has to start somewhere.

Because mine is turn-based, it starts with XXVIII Corps attacking across the Niemen River into Lithuania. The opposing Soviet rifle division immediately routs. The game tells me they lost 2999 soldiers. Seems like a lot.

After the jump, is it enough?

I’m playing the Operation Barbarossa scenario, a 24-turn affair that starts on the first day of the invasion and ends at the beginning of the Soviet winter counteroffensive. It’s the scenario where the Germans do all the attacking, and the Soviets try to figure out how not to lose their army.

I get the feeling that a lot of people start with this scenario, because, hey, it’s the first full-map scenario chronologically. I assure you that this is a bad idea. For example, what you do with Army Group Center will make or break the whole scenario, and you can essentially lose in the first two turns (or any time thereafter) if you allow the Soviets to set up an effective defense. But when I played the Road to Minsk scenario, which is the introductory three-turn deal which depicts Army Group Center’s drive on Minsk, I happily completed a small encirclement of the forward Soviet units at Bialystok before pushing on toward Minsk. Bad mistake. While I did capture Minsk, I captured none of the secondary objectives, such as Mogilev and Zhlobin, and lost the scenario. Interestingly enough, the positional objectives you need to win the scenario are the same ones you need to capture by turn 3 of the Barbarossa scenario in order to put yourself in position to eventually win that one. It’s good practice.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. For those who are more familiar with space orc regalia and unit designations than European history, the Germans had three Army Groups, designated North, Center, and South, with ultimate objectives of Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev, respectively. Each encountered different problems. AG Center was the most powerful force with two of the four German panzer groups, but had a tremendous distance to cover to its objective as well as several large river lines to cross. The smaller AG North faced the forested and swampy terrain of the Baltics and northwest Russia, as well as a final objective which was heavily fortified. AG South faced the strongest concentration of Soviet forces and would eventually require the diversion of Guderian’s panzer group from AG Center, which was the famous “turn to the south” which was supposed to have “saved Moscow” in the outdated mythology of the Second World War. War in the East recreates these problems beautifully. The five panzer corps of AG Center can complete multiple encirclements and eliminate a huge part of the Red Army, but are under constant pressure to keep moving forward to keep the Soviets from forming an effective defense. AG North will shatter the Soviet frontier defenses but will have to preserve its strength so as not to arrive at Leningrad’s formidable fortifications depleted and unable to capture the fortress. AG South will struggle against the might of the Soviet Southwestern Front and may need assistance from AG Center, depending on your objectives.

This is all stuff you’ll learn while playing the game. It’s just as unreasonable to expect you’re going to win a game of War in the East on the first try as it is a skirmish game of Age of Empires III against the Normal AI. But because the game takes so much time, you’re probably going to get discouraged your first time through and not want to come back, anticipating that you’re going to have to play as many times against the AI as you would in Age of Empires. But that’s not necessarily true.

One thing the game forces you to do, as I mentioned last time, is “visualize”. It makes no sense to just attack targets of opportunity, weak and vulnerable as they may seem. The name of the game in War in the East is encirclement. Not just the Minsk encirclement. In the south, I’m going to have a tough go against a very strong grouping of Soviet units. So what I’m going to do is drive southeast, and cut off the units around Lvov by pinning them against the border. So I need to envision a blocking position that accomplishes this. The reason for encirclement is simple: once encircled, units which would otherwise rout will surrender instead. That’s a huge incentive to surround units instead of trying to demolish them.

In the north, it’s harder to surround the enemy there because of the availability of sea supply, the lack of space, and the fact that getting drawn into northern Latvia pulls me away from my main objective which is the drive on Leningrad. So the key here is to approach Leningrad as quickly as possible before the defenders get too dug in.

But the game is going to be won and lost in the center. In the screenshot, you can see where my panzers ended up on Turn 1, which is just outside Minsk. On turn two they’ll drive for the Berezina River. Along the way, we’ll encounter funny routing units, the agony of the railroads, and an inscrutable airpower system. All as part of an absorbing game whose details enhance the game far more than they obscure it.

Next time: The Rout Report
(Click here for the previous War in the East game diary entry.)

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