War in the east: L2P NUB

, | Game diaries

In the interests of continuing to keep it real, I am going to be straight-up honest with you and admit that I have no idea how the part of the game we’re going to talk about today works. At all. I’m not even going to pretend to understand by finding some scholarly quotes and then systematically demonstrating that War in the East does this particular thing better than some game no one has ever heard of. Instead, I’m just going to throw up my hands right now and say that if anyone can help a comrade out, I’d be grateful.

After the jump, anyone? Anyone? Glantz?

Before we go there, though, I thought I’d share this Glantz excerpt (which is actually reproduced in the introductions to several of his books).

The German Luftwaffe (Air Force) shared in the German Army’s lofty reputation. The 2,770 Luftwaffe aircraft deployed to support Barbarossa represented 65 percent of Germany’s first-line strength. Although the Messerschmidt Bf-109f fighter was a superb aircraft, other German models were rapidly approaching obsolescence. The famous Ju-87 Stuka dive-bomber could survive only when the enemy air force was helpless and the Dornier-17 and Ju-88, Germany’s primary bombers, and the versatile Ju-52 transport were inadequate in both range and load (bomb) capacity. Since German industry had not made up for losses during the Battle of Britain, Germany actually had 200 fewer bombers in 1941 than it had possessed the previous spring. Given these shortages and the requirements to operate from improvised forward airfields, it was exceedingly difficult for German pilots to provide effective air superiority or offensive air strikes over the vast expanse of European Russia. In short, the Luftwaffe was primarily a tactical air force, capable of supporting short-term ground offensive operations but not a deep and effective air campaign.

Quite a coincidence that the Luftwaffe has been scientifically demonstrated by experts in the above paragraph to possess the actual capabilities that I’m looking for in an air force. In the Operation Barbarossa scenario, I need to capture Moscow before wintertime. All that other stuff, like the Soviets building tanks and airplanes to eventually capture the Reichstag is not an issue, because we’re never going to see 1942. So the fact that the Germans never developed an effective four-engined strategic bomber concerns me not a bit. Because this isn’t Axis & Allies, I cannot roll a die and develop better bombers. So I’m stuck with what I have, which like I said is just fine for six months until the snow comes.

The problem is that I’m at a loss as to how to do it. There are two sections in the manual that deal with aircraft specifically: Chapter 8 discusses Air Units, and Chapter 16 talks about Air Missions and Air Doctrine. There is a whole lot of text in there, but on page 222 it says

The air doctrine screen settings determine what, if any, priority the computer will give to the various types of air missions. It also determines the percentage of ready aircraft an air group needs in order to participate in any mission.

Way back a long time ago when the biggest concern in my life was the price difference between $12 Avalon Hill flat-box games and $16 Avalon Hill bookcase games, the second biggest concern was finding games which had a limited number of player interactions per turn so I could play them by mail (not email). The reason was obvious: if you’re exchanging turns by mail, a significant portion of the time spent playing the game goes into your envelope flying off to some guy. Games which had a lot of player-player interaction (phases) required a lot of back-and-forth, which turned a 20-turn game into 120 separate mailings. That’s like four years. Don’t kid yourself: some games I played took that long. Almost.

But a lot of that could have been solved if games had been designed with the ability to automatically trigger certain events so that you could just look at the game map and say, “Ok, my opponent would do this” and keep playing. The problem is that this introduces giant game design issues. In The Russian Campaign, you had three Stuka counters which boosted your odds by three columns for single attack. If the Russians had been able to “intercept” those choices, it would have been impossible to play the game by writing your moves on a piece of paper with a pencil, putting it in an envelope, and sending it to Australia.

So that’s why that screen is there. Not having designed the game myself, I can’t say that for certain, but the obvious game design choice Grigsby didn’t make was to have players individually allocate each air mission from an available pool of aircraft in range. I suspect (although again cannot be sure) that this was in part due to the wish to be able to play the game by email. So what you do is set an “air doctrine” parameter which defines … hmmm. Actually, what does it really define?

The answer is on page 234, which is my favorite statement in the entire manual.

Ground Support, Interdiction Attack, Ground Attack, Airfield Attack, and City Attack: Determines the number of bombers that the computer will attempt to have participate in a ground support or strike mission as a percentage of what the computer would normally attempt to send.

Those last twelve words are already in italics, so I’m not sure how I would make them more italicized. Put them in bold, I guess. What the manual is saying is that even though I am not particularly well acquainted with the computer and we don’t do much together socially, I am supposed to know its personality so well that I should be able to look at the map, decide what it might be thinking regarding the commitment of air units, and then make my own decisions as to how conservative or aggressive I should be relative to its own tendencies. To get to that point I read twelve pages of manual and it told me no game information whatsoever.

Take a look at the screenshot below. Army Group North is pushing hard on Turn 3, and I’m making a risky attack with limited support in the hopes that I can capture Pskov in order to drive northeast along the Pskov-Leningrad corridor. The 8th Panzer Division and 30th Motorized Division, supported by some attached units, make a cross-river attack on Pskov itself. Magically, I’m supported by 42 bombers (6 Ju-86 and 36 Ju-88) escorted by 62 Me-109. The Soviets counter with 22 Pe-2 escorted by 26 MiG-3. I lose a fighter and two bombers, and the Soviets lose six fighters and 11 bombers. I win the battle, routing two defending Soviet units and forcing the third to retreat. Contribution of my air power to this victory? Undetermined at this time.

Full disclosure: As part of the scientific method, I actually saved and loaded this battle ten times to see exactly how likely I was to capture the city. Result? Sixty percent.

So the effect of my concentrating all of Army Group North’s air units within range of Pskov and making it the first attack of the turn? I have no idea. I won, but it seems like it was a close-run battle in the first place, so maybe those bombers made a difference. But this highlights what makes War in the East, despite all of its simplification, such a deviation from normal strategy games: not only does it rely on some outside knowledge (42 bombers and 62 fighters is a significant sortie, if you compare this to air missions in the Battle of Britain, for example), but you have no way of setting your own preferences except in relation to a game mechanism which is itself undefined and unexplained.

The good news is that who cares. And that’s really my whole point about this game. If you understand wargames, you can pretty much puzzle out various things by playing a few times. Sometimes the manual helps you out, like with supply and isolation and railroad repair, and sometimes it assumes that you and the computer are so much on the same wavelength that you regularly discuss your thresholds for sending bombers to attack Russia.

For those of you following the drama in Army Group South, Turn 3 is when forces stationed in Rumania are released, and I’ve used the forces driving southeast from Poland to extend an encirclement to more Soviet troops along the Rumanian border. It has nothing to do with air forces, but it gives me a chance to post another screenshot. With arrows.

Next time: state of siege
(Click here for the previous War in the East game diary.)