War in the East: the diablo is in the details

, | Game diaries

Victory conditions are wargames’ great balancers. Without them, you’d have to play many games for fun, because one side would have little chance of winning. No one thinks that the Germans had any chance of winning the Battle of the Bulge, in the sense of achieving their strategic objective, which was the capture of Antwerp. But failing that, how can you call any other result a victory? Germany was going to be completely laid waste in the next six months, so who cares if the Panzer Lehr brigade made it to Dinant? Pacific theater games are the same way: the chances of the Japanese defeating the U.S. militarily, or forcing a surrender, were probably nil. What would a Japanese victory in the Pacific look like, anyway? Rising Sun over Sacramento? Unlikely. So for a Japanese player, you might just have to make it to September 1945, which would be a month longer than the historical Japanese lasted. That’s the whole, “Can YOU do better than Admiral Yamamoto?” slogan from Avalon Hill that I remember 25 years later, whereas I can’t remember the specifics of a scientific article I read last week.

After the jump, math, geography, book quotes, and 100+ bombers

But victory conditions are ultimately what a wargame is all about, and assuming that they’re somehow identical to those which were understood historically can be a big mistake. After all, capturing Moscow is what it’s all about, right? Didn’t you see the movie?

In an earlier piece, I outlined the general objectives for each of the three German army groups. Earl F. Ziemke’s excellent two-volume history of the eastern front, published in 1985, describes the shifting strategy directing the invasion forces.

In two directives (numbers 33 and 34 of 19 and 30 July, respectively) and supplements to them, Hitler had given Leningrad and the Ukraine priority over Moscow as strategic objectives. He had also ordered Army Group Center to divert forces, particularly armor, to the north and the south on a scale that would practically halt the advance in the center after the fighting ended at Smolensk. The objective given in Directive 33 was “to prevent the escape of large enemy forces into the depths of the Russian territory and to annihilate them.” In the final supplement, Hitler had added another: “to take possession of the Donets [Basin] and Kharkov industrial areas”.

So the initial objectives of Operation Barbarossa changed dramatically barely one month into the campaign. But that didn’t change the fact that Soviet missteps often played directly into German hands. In the south, where the strongest Soviet forces were located, high-level directives undermined the battlefield calculus. Ziemke again:

The advances of Army Groups Center and South in July had, by early August wrapped their lines halfway around the Soviet forces standing at Kiev and along the Dnepr north and south of the city, creating a potential trap for almost the whole of Southwest Front. […]The danger was obvious, but Stalin could not bring himself to sacrifice Kiev, and after Zhukov proposed doing that, Stalin removed him as chief of the General Staff. On 4 August, Stalin ordered Southwest and South Fronts to hold the Kiev area and the line of the lower Dnepr.

Strategic mistakes are difficult to replicate because, well, they’re mistakes. Everyone knows about them, and thus is anxious to avoid them. Whether or not you defend Kiev should depend on whether it makes sense in the game, not whether or not Stalin decided to defend it in 1941. But if you give players too much freedom, you’re essentially changing the historical conditions, most of which were beyond the player’s control. Victory conditions are a way of guiding play without making it so obvious.

War in the East has a crazy set of victory conditions for the Barbarossa scenario, which awards each player points throughout the scenario for destroying enemy units, but also awards the Germans points for each turn they hold certain cities, and the Russians points at the end of the game if they hold others.

Take a look at this screenshot.

Four red flags trace a crescent across the northeast corner of the map. These are Cherepovets, Yaroslavl, Gorky, and Kazan. The Soviets get 30 points for each one of these cities they hold at game end. That’s like saying that at the end of Turn 24 they get 120 points, because there is absolutely no way the Germans are taking a single one of those cities. Kazan is almost in the Urals, for Guderian’s sake. Because victory is determined by point ratio, if the Soviets get 120 points at game end, the Germans are going to need to find twice that, or 240 points, just to stay at a 2:1 ratio, which is the prerequisite for a major victory. That’s a huge undertaking, because the Germans get zero points — that’s right zero points — for taking Moscow or Leningrad. They just prevent the Soviets from gaining another 25 points for each victory hex of those two cities (three for Moscow, two for Leningrad, for a total of five) which makes another 125 points, in addition to the one victory point per hex the Soviets earn for control at the end of each turn. So even if the Germans capture the two most important cities in the whole campaign, they get nothing and the Russians get 120 points. Maybe the game was designed by the Soviet Historical Wargame Commitee?

The answer is that the Germans get points for each turn they hold certain cities. So the sooner they capture them, the more victory points they will yield. Where are the German victory point cities? Riga and Minsk are two, but those will fall early no matter what strategy you use. Smolensk is another. These all yield one point per turn, so that’s perhaps 65 points. Where are the rest? All in the south. Kiev is only worth one point per turn (as is Odessa, on the Black Sea and near Rumania), but Kharkov, Stalino, and Rostov are all worth two points, and an additional 5 each at the end of the game. Tula, south of Moscow, is the same. If the Germans capture those three by turn 15, and hold them to the end, that’s 75 more points. Kiev and Odessa might fall by turn 10. Tula will fall on the drive to Moscow, perhaps by turn 20. So add 45 more. That’s only 185 by my count. Need to go faster.

Sorry for all the numbers. But without doing some math, you don’t realize that this sets the pacing for the entire scenario. Capturing Moscow and Leningrad early doesn’t make sense, because even if you do, you’re giving up the two points per turn for the southern cities and Tula, which is the only way you’re going to get enough victory points to win. So what can you do? Divert as much strength as you can to the south, grab those cities — which just happen to represent the “Donets basin and Kharkov industrial areas” — and then resume the drive on Moscow in the hope that you can make it before winter comes. Oh, and capture Voronezh as well, which the Germans didn’t come close to doing in 1941. Otherwise the Russians get another 30 points. All of a sudden, the “turn to the right” by Panzer Group 2 and the encirclement of Kiev make a lot more sense, game-wise.

How is that for directing your strategy from a historical perspective without actually telling you?

So how is my campaign in the south going? Let me show you.

XIV Panzer Corps is driving on Kiev, and engages three Soviet tank divisions. I’m outnumbered 131 to 348 in tanks, but I’m supported by over 100 bombers, and I manage to rout two of them and force the third to retreat. We’ll talk about that particular set of numbers in an upcoming installment. It’s a losing battle, though, and I’m not going to take Kiev by frontal assault. Nor should I, if I’m going to push further east and grab those victory point cities. Time is not on my side. I need to have a word with the designers.

Up next: 1-2-3 leader check, check
Click here for the previous War in the East game diary