War in the East: a question of scale

, | Game diaries

Before we can get to the fight for Stalingrad or whatnot, there is the small question of Sevastopol. This naval base on the Crimean peninsula, famous as the site of the focus of the Crimean War in 1855, was the home of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet in 1941 and stood as a fortress through a 250-day siege until it finally fell to the Germans in 1942. In War in the East’s Operation Blue scenario, the Soviets get 50 points for every turn they control the city. That’s a lot of points, so I need to make an all-out assault on the first turn to limit the damage to my final victory.

After the jump, Germany made an all-out assault of their own.

Sevastopol itself was a series of defensive belts, with fortifications and strongpoints, and the going was tough for the Germans. The attack started on 7 June 1942. David Glantz describes it.

The first break for the Germans came on 13 June 1942, when LIV Army Corps captured Maxim Gorky I (Battery No. 30), a massive fortification that anchored the northern end of the outer defensive belt. Large-caliber German guns had long since disabled the gun turrets of this fort, but the defenders fought on until only a handful of wounded Soviets remained alive. To make up for equally serious German losses, Army Group South gave German Eleventh Army an additional infantry regiment and allowed it to swap two depleted regiments for stronger units from a division left at Kerch. The struggle continued inch by bleeding inch. On 17 June, following ten days of struggle, the Germans finally swept six other forts on the northern end of the ring, pressing forward to Severnaia (Northern) Bay, a long, thin finger of water that divided Sevastopol proper from the northern defenses. There, however, LIV Army Corps had to halt, waiting for the other two corps to make similar progress and come on line to the east and south. The depleted German 22nd Infantry Division barely contained a brigade-sized Soviet counterattack on the morning of 18 June. Thereafter, the Germans slowly eliminated bypassed centers of resistance, while the Soviet defenders, resupplied only by submarine, gradually ran low on ammunition, food, and water. Even so, the Stavka [Soviet high command -bg] dispatched two rifle brigades to reinforce the garrison.

The final assault again demonstrated Manstein’s ability to take a calculated risk. At 0100 hours on 29 June, troops from 22nd and 24th Infantry Divisions used engineer assault boats to cross Severnaia Bay in secret, seizing the city’s power plant by surprise. An hour later, XXX Army Corps began the artillery preparation for its assault on Sapun Heights, the principal terrain obstacle east of Sevastopol. The new offensive was so successful that on 30 June Admiral Oktiabr’sky persuaded the Stavka to order an evacuation. During the next four nights, key Soviet staff officers and commanders escaped by boat; the personnel remaining in the fortresses continued to defend themselves. In some instances, political officers committed suicide, blowing up their positions in an effort to take some attackers with them.

That’s exciting! A surprise raid on the city’s power plant! Engineer assault boats! Last stand of the political commissars!

Here’s how it goes in War in the East:

I select two stacks of units adjacent to the Sevastopol hex. I hold down the Shift key to initiate a Deliberate Assault. Then I right-click on the Sevastopol hex.

The Soviet units disappear. The hex is empty.

I captured Sevastopol.

That is a factual account of my capture of Sevastopol on Turn 1 of this scenario, as evidenced by the above screenshot. But it also illustrates that theater-scale games like this sacrifice a lot of drama in detail for drama in scope. And this is a big problem with Stalingrad games, where the battle for the city is dwarfed by the scale of the campaign’s landmass. If the battle for Sevastopol is diminished by reduction to a single combat over one hex, what about Stalingrad? That city is just a single hex on the map, also (technically it’s two, but only one is a victory location). Yet this was one of the most contested “hexes” in history, where daily gains were measured in yards. It’s a difficult game design problem to solve. Some of the attempted solutions are quite interesting.

One person who tried to do so is Mark Simonitch, now a (very talented) graphic designer with GMT Games. He used to have his own company — called Rhino Games — back in the early 1990s, and he released a couple interesting titles. The second one was called Campaign to Stalingrad, and was basically a division-level game of the same subject we’re playing digitally right now. I pulled it out of the closet the other day. And immediately remembered how unusual this game was.

The map scale was 16 kilometers per hex, which is the same as War in the East. So the map for this scenario and for Campaign to Stalingrad should be about the same. Sure enough, they are. See the images below.

The left-hand map is War in the East, showing the Great Bend of the Don River and Stalingrad, which occupies two hexes on the west side of the Volga River. The Volga turns sharply east just south of Stalingrad. The Don quietly flows east at the top of the map, then as it heads south forms a great loop very close to Stalingrad, and then proceeds southwest. The Campaign to Stalingrad map on the right shows almost identical features. It is terrain any eastern front aficionado recognizes on sight.

But the Campaign to Stalingrad map is missing something: The Caucasus. Instead of putting the goal of the whole offensive on the map, Simonitch cut the map off just south of Rostov and replaced it with something called the Caucasus Track, an off-map series of boxes meant to represent the German progress southward. In the game’s designer’s notes, he explains.

I suppose it was silly to put out a game on the Axis 1942 offensive and cut off the map before the oilfields. I did so because a large map would not fit on most gaming tables.

That’s quite a design decision.

And obviously an artifact of printing a game on a mapsheet that you have to put on a table. Off-map boxes are an abstraction that made it possible for a lot of conventional wargames to represent distant real estate without requiring space on the basement floor. In a digital game, the abstraction might feel a bit too artificial. (See the difference between the Caucasus in the two games, above.)  But then, you wouldn’t be saving any table space.

An equally interesting, if less controversial, choice was to use off-map displays to represent city control. Each major city has a “city display” which consists of a hex divided into six sections. Stalingrad is two hexes, with a total of twelve.

Any time you attack a city, you need to achieve a success of a certain magnitude to fully capture it. You can do this incrementally by attacking each turn, but the defender has the ability to counterattack and cancel out your successes. In the meantime, units are taken off the main map and placed directly on the city display. They’re really there just to keep track of who controls which hexside (as that is important for supply and retreat purposes) but it gives the appearance of a “city battle.” There are no new mechanics for combat once the battle moves there, so it is really just a matter of presentation.

Putting a magnifying glass over a city like this isn’t unlike a tactical combat engine in a computer game, although it’s a pretty crude mechanism by comparison. I’m surprised more computer games don’t take advantage of the medium to present varying in-game scales*. A big problem with theater-level games is the loss of granularity at the point of attack, and just the fact of having off-map city displays gave the game just a bit more verisimilitude.

But there are other ways to represent granularity, and it’s pretty clear how War in the East chooses to do it. It’s probably the best and only way for this particular subject.

Take a look at some counters from the two games. The left side shows full-strength (i.e. at start) versions of the 24th Panzer Division (left) and Grossdeutschland Motorized Division (right). The number on the left is the combat value, and on the right is movement. The counters to the right are from Campaign to Stalingrad depicting the same units. The Grossdeutschland counter has a defense strength (14) listed after the attack strength (12), but the values — combat and movement — are analogous.

Because combat values are only meaningful in relation to other combat values, it doesn’t really matter what the absolute values are, but it’s interesting that in both games 24th Panzer has a strength of 16. This suggests the games are scaling things similarly. But note the movement values. In Campaign to Stalingrad, German motorized units have six movement points.

In War in the East, they have fifty.

That very significant discrepancy is partly explained by the fact that turns in War in the East are a week long, while in Campaign to Stalingrad a turn only represents three days. But even if you cut the War in the East values in half, they are still four times as high as in the boardgame. Even the fact that it is sometimes possible to move along roads in Campaign to Stalingrad at twice the normal movement rate doesn’t resolve the two values. And this is the crazy part: how can two games that are supposedly quantitatively analyzing the historical capabilities of the same giant German metal machines with treads and guns on them come to the conclusion that in one case these machines can move twenty miles a day, and in the other case they can move to Neptune?

The truth lies somewhere in between, because I know that if you just got in a panzer, figured out how the clutch works and then started driving, you’d probably get further than twenty miles in 24 hours. But as any game designer will tell you, those points represent far more than just how far a unit can move. It’s also how much time it takes to deploy for action, or march, or rest periods each day, or even the delays for the staff work involved in moving ten thousand troops in a given direction. So a boardgame has to take all this into account and distill it to a single number. A number which can’t change, because it is printed on a piece of cardboard. Sure, you can cut it in half if you’re out of supply. Or modify it by weather. But your initial number is fixed.

War in the East isn’t handicapped by all that. And because behind all of the simple numbers-on-counters presentation is a detailed engine keeping track of just about everything there is to know about a panzer division, War in the East can afford to present you with a movement rate of 50, which represents a perfectly supplied group of tanks all rested and supplied and full of beans. If you let them drive for a week unopposed on a straight road, they could drive 500 miles (50 hexes). Easy.

But because tanks use gas even while idling, and supply trucks don’t always arrive on schedule, War in the East can use this fantasy number as a starting point and then carefully titrate movement values based on the availability of supply and the size of motor pools. This is the game’s singular strength, and when combined with the same titration of combat strength due to losses and supply issues, does something that isn’t really possible in most other computer wargames on the subject: modeling the gradual grinding down of German armor strength, as well as its decreasing mobility. Traditional hex-and-counter board wargames tried to do this with what are called “step losses,” where a unit can be represented by a number of different counters. Lose a “step,” get replaced by a different counter with reduced values (see below image). But counters only have two sides, and if you want to have more steps than that, you need more counters. And that costs money, etc.

Traditional hex-and-counter board wargames are ultimately all about specific math: get just enough attack factors arranged for the right odds ratio, or — if defending — arrange your units so the attacker can’t get a sufficiently high odds ratio for success, no matter how he re-arranges his units. This lends itself to a lot of jokes, along the lines of “Get me 395th Infantry Division! I need two more attack factors or we’ll need to roll a six to make any headway!”

War in the East avoids this by making each combat so complex that you really can’t ever know if you have the “best” chance for success. In itself, that may be more realistic, but doesn’t necessarily make for a good game.

But the game takes this unpredictable complexity one step further, and integrates it with a more predictable supply system which determines a unit’s combat power (both strength and mobility). Instead of trying to get the perfect 7:1 odds for an overrun (explained in next article!), you have to arrange your supply network to maximize the flow to your point of attack, and then see how those troops do. We’ll talk a lot more about supply issues in later installments, but it’s clear that understanding supply is the key to War in the East.

Which is entirely appropriate. From the German perspective, the actual campaign was a constant struggle against the supply gods. Building such a detailed supply system into the game lets you see how much this struggle mattered. Real generals never counted attack factors, but they did worry constantly about supply. When you play War in the East, you worry along with them.

Next time: Roundup at the Voronezh corral

*Except that in games that did try it, like Wargamer: Napoleon and Crown of Glory, you could totally subvert the strategic engine by taking advantage of the poor AI in the tactical engine. Ok, I see why more games haven’t tried.