War in the East: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Detail

, | Game reviews

There is something very comforting about a bunch of square pieces of cardboard on a hex grid. For someone who grew up at a certain time and frequented hobby stores, an oval inside a rectangle above two numbers separated by a dash has only one meaning: if you put them on a cardboard square, with some luck, you might be able to move them all the way to Moscow.

I can say with the certainty of imperfect memory that War in the East is the first time I’ve gone to a book to help me play a wargame. I pulled my thirty-year-old copy of Manstein’s Lost Victories off the shelf because I couldn’t figure out the best way to use 41st and 56th Panzer Corps to approach Leningrad. Was I supposed to stay completely west of Lake Ilmen? What did a real panzer general do? That’s something I’ve never done, because up until now the game and the history were thematically linked but conceptually separate. Sure, I knew what happened historically, but that wasn’t helpful when trying to line up 42 combat factors for a 3:1 attack. War in the East channels the past straight to my bookshelf in a way The Russian Campaign never did. That statement is blasphemy in this household, but it is pretty much true. Please excommunicate me now.

A long time ago, I wrote an article about the difference between realism and detail in wargames. It ended up being required reading for a course at the U.S. Army War College*. For those of you who skipped class that day, the point was that if you want your game to reward good decisions, it makes no sense to incorporate a level of detail the player is incapable of managing. If things are happening at a level below that of what the player can reasonably affect, there’s no reason to include, except for show. Or “chrome” as old wargamers would say.

*Actual, non-ironic fact.

After the jump, War in the East breaks these rules but keeps on winning

Before you think I have gone all soft and let the terrorists win, I still stand behind this philosophy. The abstraction that turns the British 7th Armored Division into a unit with seven “attack factors” doesn’t bother me, because I see strategy games as a series of decisions based on available information. But for others, they are role-playing experiences in which extraneous detail adds to the level of immersion, and armored divisions don’t have “attack factors.” Better to simulate all the things that go into the armored division. How many tanks does it have? Does it have enough ammo? What kind of hats are the drivers wearing? Fine. I can accept other viewpoints, even when they’re weird and wrong.

The problem occurs when this endless sea of detail drives the design off the road. The Operational Art of War tried to sell the premise that you could build a magic engine to simulate any campaign from 1939 to 1955, from battalion to divisional scale. After all, once you figured out how good all the units were, you could just put them in a database and have the computer brainstorm the results. For some computery game design reason, this didn’t work. There was a bit of a brouhaha when someone dug into the details and found that a hundred jeeps had somehow beaten a hundred Tiger tanks, but those details are ultimately unimportant. Operational Art of War didn’t put on a good show because the results never felt right. I tried different Operation Barbarossa scenarios from several designers, and none of them did a good job of making a game about invading Russia. No big encirclements, no slowly degrading panzer spearheads, no punch and counterpunch. The jeep versus Tiger showdown was the least of the problems.

For all I know, those jeeps could be running circles around those same Tigers in War in the East. The difference is that I’ll never know, because it isn’t making the game play funny. Because I’m one of those guys, I’ve been reading a lot of David Glantz’s books about the eastern front. It’s just what I do. I don’t know how many times I’ve come across some paragraph in a book since getting War in the East, and thinking, “that just happened to me.” In the game, I mean. I didn’t actually get frozen to death on the road to Smolensk. But the whole point of wargaming for me is the ability to somehow touch history, and wargames sometimes have a hard time doing that and remaining good games, because the “touching history” part too often involves just dumping a big sack of “history” into your computer in the form of leader names and weapons data.

Don’t kid yourself: War in the East does exactly this. You can click on any formation and immediately find out how many vehicles of a certain type it has, or what its leader’s political rating is, or if it has fancy hats. Well, the last part will probably be in a patch. But still, the game has so much detail that it’s easy to be tricked into thinking you need to know everything about everything. Because you don’t.

A bunch of years ago, War in the Pacific was supposed to be the ultimate “detail game” for wargamers to immerse themselves in a fully simulated strategic world. Each ship had a captain, and fuel points, and the turns were one day long, and you could follow every torpedo hit.

Unfortunately, it was also completely unintuitive in that, just like in the real-life Pacific war, long periods of inactivity were punctuated by brief periods of combat. Except the inactivity wasn’t really inactivity: bases had to be built, supplies stockpiled, troops trained, ships repaired, and all the while each side had to carry out constant reconnaissance so as not to be caught unprepared for a carrier raid, or an invasion, or nuclear Armageddon. The problem was that you had no direction. You could play for months (of game-time and real-time) without realizing that you had no chance of winning the war, or even invading a single enemy base, because you hadn’t created the extensive, micromanaged logistics network that would keep your ships from running out of whatever ships run on. Boiler rooms, I guess. Starting a game of War in the Pacific immediately made you (okay, me) feel like doing anything else other than playing War in the Pacific. Never mind the interface, and the tiny text, and the unhelpful manual that could have been so great but just ended up telling you what the “Save Game” screen was for. You just had no idea of where to start, or how you were doing at any given time, and when you finally tried to, at last, fight some cool battles, you found out that you had been doing it all wrong. For the last 150 turns.

Not so here. Any wargamer who knows anything about rectangles with ovals in them can take a look at a map, check the date, and decide, “The Germans are screwed,” or “I wouldn’t want to be in Moscow right now.” It has an essential approachability and immediacy that appeals to any wargamer, because it does such a good job of modeling history in ways that instantly catch your eye. More importantly, the game allows you to, you know, click on stuff and move it around, the way you’d pick up counters on a map. Click on a stack of units, move your mouse, and…some numbers appear. It’s a string of numbers coming from where your unit is and they go to, uh, where your unit is going. Or at least where your mouse is. That must be the number of movement points. When you mouse over an enemy unit, you can right-click to attack. If you pass you mouse over eligible adjacent units, they automatically join the attack, too.

Before I had really played the game at all, I read a great after-action report on a website in which the author had posted screenshots of each turn. One of them showed him doing well in southern Russia, but I noticed a concentration of Soviet forces to the north, which looked pretty threatening, so much so that I thought, “uh-oh.” Sure enough, in his next post, he had a big Red Army problem. The kind where Soviet tanks are running amok in your rear areas. You could see it coming a mile away, and if you wanted to, you could click on some things and see how many men, tanks, and artillery he had lost, and what types, and how much supplies they required. But it didn’t really matter, because the bigger pieces made sense.

War in the East’s scenarios range from perfect packages of bite-sized blitzkrieg to Tarkovsky-length trials of attentional fortitude. There is a tutorial scenario, but the real introduction is the Road to Minsk, a three-turn exposition on the classic elements of Panzer-izing your opponent. I’ve played it three times and can’t quite recreate the historical result, but it is every bit as engaging as the bigger stuff. Usually, big wargames derive their appeal from their size, because this gives the game scope and a sense of the epic, like a good fantasy role-playing game where the whole continent has a history and backstory even though all the action is in a single dungeon. Big wargames often don’t scale well because the compromises made to make the game simultaneously big and playable show through when you concentrate on individual parts. That this game works almost equally well creating a battle for a single city as it does for all of European Russia is probably its most amazing design accomplishment.

War in the East is one of those games that rewards study, but doesn’t require you to major in it. Unless you want to. If you do, you’ll learn how a pretty impressive piece of machinery works, and be able to appreciate it even as you realize you don’t need to follow all the detail to understand the game. And that’s what is so remarkable. It’s almost certainly the most important wargame to come out in the past ten years. Since Combat Mission came out in 2000, I’m safe there. But just like Combat Mission completely changed tactical combat by making it engaging and visceral while keeping it a wargame, War in the East finally gets Big Detail right by making sure that the whole thing works when you step back ten paces. I don’t know how they did that, and I don’t care. I’m just trying to figure out how to extricate my encircled panzer divisions.

Does Bruce escape to conquer the steppe or will he be taken prisoner? Find out when Bruce Geryk’s War in the East game diary begins tomorrow.