War in the East: Excuse me, which train goes to Voroshilovgrad?

, | Game diaries

Board wargaming is almost an aesthetic, and believe me it pains me to use that word as a noun. After all the counters are placed, reinforcement charts filled, turn record tracks assigned, but before the first move, the game is all possibilities — possibilities which play out on that same map that you laid out before you started. Berlin might end up with a “Soviet control” marker on it, but for now it is your ultimate sanctum, with your most valuable factory and headquarters units, and leader counters, all safe from immediate harm. In a different game, Hougoumont starts with stacks upon red stacks of Wellington’s finest, which later sharply outlines the moment when it is all clear except for the blue of Bauduin’s 6th Division. And in yet another, placing a single Confederate gray counter on Washington likely means you’re starting to pick up and sort all the other pieces for storage back in your counter trays, agonizing over that last battle die roll and arguing over the river bonus. In between, lots of cardboard infantry did a lot of marching.

After the jump, War in the East speaks its own language

Maybe all those possibilities are what makes boardgames look good, which presumes that you agree that paper maps with a bunch of colored cardboard chits on them are in any way visually appealing. That’s why that screenshot is up there: admiring the unspoiled pre-game setup is part of the ritual and reward of this particular hobby. In computer wargaming, it’s an effortless pleasure, since at any time it’s only a “Load Scenario” screen away. Each scenario in War in the East asks new questions. Will those Russian counters in Moscow still be there at the end of Operation Typhoon? Can those panzer divisions south of Kharkov drive all the way to Stalingrad? How will the front line look if that happens? Understanding the aesthetic (there’s that word again) allows you to visualize what is and is not possible. Can that panzer division ever make it to Astrakhan? Not unless some very weird stuff happens. And it would sure look different.

War in the East rewards a lot of visualizing. That forward Soviet deployment at Bialystok is begging to be isolated by the twin prongs of the Second and Third Panzer Groups. But limiting your encirclement to those units would be a waste: your armored and motorized units can approach Minsk (at the very eastern edge of the screenshot) on the first turn, and by the second turn the action is well onto the next screen. That may seem like a huge success (and historically, it was), but it requires consistently aggressive play as you struggle to keep pushing your advance forward while staying in supply and staying out of encirclements yourself. At the start of the game as the Axis, you have the tools.

But this requires understanding a lot of the language of wargaming that is probably opaque to any newcomer, regardless of how experienced he or she is with other games. Who would think that, without an unbroken hex link to a primary supply source, all those forward Soviet units will just surrender instead of retreating? Who would think that, without a valid headquarters unit in range, a previously mighty panzer division might start the turn at less than half strength? The huge movement factors on the German motorized units carry their own huge possibilities, but will only a wargamer understand that moving too far can be very dangerous? There is something about a stack of armored units surrounded by enemy zones of control that means one thing in wargaming language and gibberish in any other.

This game sure knows how to speak the wargaming language. Select any unit and you can instantly see how far it can move, where the enemy hexes are, and which hexes you would convert to your control along the way. Click on a headquarters and immediately see which units are subordinate, and whether they are in supply. This even changes while units are moving, so you can see the little red “unsupplied” outlines around distant units turn a happy blue as the headquarters moves in range. Toggle the rail hex indicator to see how fast you’re converting those precious rail lines to European gauge from Soviet wide gauge. (Answer: not fast enough.) And everyone who knows wargaming knows what it means when the weather indicator turns to “Mud”.

But for others, I can only imagine it’s pretty bewildering. The same effortlessness that lets grognards just start pushing units east must be like a huge Russian winter to anyone else. I’ve probably read about ten pages of the manual so far, because I only wanted to know the answers to specific questions, and I can pretty much figure out the rest, and go by instinct. I promise this is the last time I’ll use that word, but I’d love to hear someone’s experience with this game coming from completely outside the wargaming aesthetic. Is it enough to be a strategy gamer? Or do you have to know all this other nonsense?
I’ve spoken this language for over thirty years, so I’m pretty sure I know what to do.
The offensive starts tomorrow.

Tomorrow: Shklov’s Labors Lost
(Click here for Bruce Geryk’s War in the East review.)