War in the East: the rout report

, | Game diaries

The biggest obstacle to playing a wargame for people who haven’t played wargames is understanding what the game expects of you. Yeah, you need to capture Moscow or whatever, but the whole in-between part is so opaque I think people just don’t even bother. Part of the appeal of games is being given tasks which you can accomplish and then figuring out how to do that. I’m convinced that is the appeal of the otherwise-unfathomable-to-me RTS campaign paradigm, where some guy talks for a while and then you have to figure out the puzzle of how to defeat the space orcs.

But when the event is a more recent historical one, you kind of bring your own preconceived notions to the table. For example, it initially really bothered me that routed units in War in the East could just relocate to a new hex every time I moved adjacent to them. In my mind, I thought that routed units should just be eliminated when they engaged in combat. On one Three Moves Ahead podcast I think I called War in the East’s system “ping pong” or “kick the can” warfare. I’m pretty clever and smart. And I obviously know everything about invading Russia in the 1940s. So when I say I have all the answers, you can pretty much take that to the bank.

After the jump, it turns out I was wrong.

I was reading David Glantz’s Barbarossa Derailed (Vol. I) which gave me pause.

Pacification of his rear also began to worry Bock as early as 1 July. Although the Germans used the term “partisans” in their documents even before Stalin called for the formation of a partisan movement behind the German lines in a 3 July address, individually or in small groups, thousands of Red Army soldiers were roaming around in no-man’s land through which the panzers had advanced too rapidly to round them up. Since the follow-on infantry still lagged far behind the panzer spearheads and had not yet cleared the bypassed regions, numerous bands of stragglers, some still armed, struggled eastward, disrupting German supply lines and impeding communications.

Essentially, Glantz was saying that it was not possible for the panzer spearheads to achieve what I thought they should be able to do, which was eliminate units they had previously reduced to non-combat effectiveness. So maybe I needed to take a closer look at the game?

The great thing about the War in the East manual, which is not at all like the War in the Pacific manual, is that when you have a question, you can pretty much just ask the manual and it will tell you. Going to the table of contents, I looked up “Effects of Routing” which is on page 218. So I read down the page with the assistance of the helpful section headings and found that routed units suffer a displacement move when placed adjacent to the enemy, unless they are stacked with a friendly non-routed combat unit. When stacked with such a unit, if they are attacked and forced to retreat, they are “shattered”. So what does that mean? On page 217, it says that damaged elements of a shattered unit are captured, and undamaged elements may still be captured. But then:

If a ground unit is not captured, and it is a Soviet infantry or cavalry squad, then there is a chance the unit will become a partisan squad in a newly created partisan unit.

Which is pretty much what Glantz was saying.

Fine. I’ll accept that. But does this really mean that routed units should be so elusive? Let’s refer to Glantz again (Barbarossa Derailed).

Hitler was increasingly agitated by what he perceived as an inability of his army groups to seal strategic and operational encirclements and thoroughly “digest” the encircled forces within them. Although not yet a major problem, as the Minsk encirclement demonstrated, when panzer and motorized divisions performed the encirclement maneuver and took over responsibility for holding part of the encirclement line, their inherent shortages of motorized infantry resulted in undue “leakage”, that is, Red Army escapees from the encirclement. Thus he urged Bock to employ his infantry divisions to relieve the panzer and motorized forces initially forming the inner encirclement line around the pocket as soon as was feasible.

This is so well recreated by the game that you feel like David Glantz is standing right there next to you, explaining why the next excerpt (which is from the War in the East manual) is historically accurate.

Units and unoccupied friendly hexes are isolated if they cannot trace a path of 100 MP to a supply source. Units cut off in the opposing player’s turn don’t gain isolated status until the next player’s turn in the logistics phase. […] Isolated units will not rout, but will surrender instead.

Combined with the previous information, this now illustrates the historical point, and explains why it makes so much more sense in game terms to try and encircle large concentrations of enemy units than it does to smash them directly. Every time you attack, you suffer casualties and expend ammunition. If you isolate a large number of enemy units, they’re essentially dead before they fight, as long as you are able to reduce the pocket.

So, by request, above is another screenshot, complete with arrows, to illustrate this whole point. Remember our last discussion about how Army Group South faced some tough going? And instead of driving straight for Kiev I was going to try and pin some units against the Rumanian border? Ok then. The red circle shows which Red Army units are isolated, the black arrow shows the direction I sent my panzers in order to cut them off, and the text boxes show how you used to spell “Rumania” before the Communist postwar government changed it to “Romania”. I hope you’re not a Communist. You can probably even see the hex-control shading which shows that there is no way the trapped units can trace a 100 MP supply line to anywhere.

Which brings us back to strategy games. Because Chris Metzen and I are probably the only people who know for certain what historically happened to the space orcs, it’s up to the rest of gamerdom to use its understanding of the language of gaming to figure out what works and what doesn’t when you’re attacked by a genetically engineered quasi-religious military order. Big laser Gatling guns usually do, I’ve found. But if you don’t have some understanding of the language of wargaming, you’re not going to be able to intuitively figure out the implications of being isolated without carefully reading the manual. Most people, for very good reasons, don’t want to do this. But until you either read every page of the War in the East documentation or otherwise acquire some basic understanding of what made a difference in 1940s armored combat on an operational level, you’re going to have a hard time making a go of it in War in the East. I hope this piece gave you a little shortcut.

Next time: Sid Meier’s Heinz Guderian’s Railroad Tycoon
(Click here for the previous War in the East game diary.)