The Barbarian’s War in the East Review
Review - posted by Jason on Thu 6 January 2011, 06:02:50
Gary Grigsby’s wargaming pedigree is beyond dispute. A real grognard’s grognard, he is the mastermind behind a number of genre classics, including ‘Gary Grigsby’s War in Russia’ (1993), the widely acclaimed ‘Steel Panthers’ (1995) and, more recently, the outstanding ‘War in the Pacific’ series. Grigsby’s operational wargames can be characterized by their historical fidelity, their magnificent breadth/scope, and, sadly, the insane gradient of their learning curve. The former makes Grigsby games the traditional fare of the salt-of-the-earth wargamer. The latter keeps unwary casuals at bay. ‘Here be Dragons’, indeed, when the player is confronted by enough statistical information and functionality to be running a real life General Staff from the comfort of their PC.
Earlier this month, Grigsby’s development house (2by3 Games) finally released its newest opus: ‘Gary Grigsby’s War in the East’. Intermittently 'under construction' for over half a decade, this monstrous game encapsulates the entirety of the monumentally bloody fighting on the Eastern Front – between the Soviet Union and the Axis – during the Second World War. Employing a divisional scale (with some regimental and brigade exceptions) and weekly turns, it aims to cater to those who loved ‘War in Russia’, but wanted greater attention paid to detail and a more nuanced approach to fighting this entrancing and – quite often – bewildering campaign.
The mystique of the Eastern Front lies primarily in its terrifying scale. The Soviet-German conflict was the single bloodiest clash of arms in the annals of warfare. By most estimates, some twelve million soldiers perished on both sides from 22 June 1941 to 5 May 1945. Many millions more were wounded or made prisoner. The conflagration is difficult to adequately describe. It saw battles constantly rage across a contiguous, three thousand kilometre frontier over four years. The frontlines shifted, at various intervals, from Poland to the expanses of the Eurasian steppe, before being rolled all the way back, deep into Central Europe. Fighting took place on virtually every type of terrain, and continued in all weather conditions. A developer needs incredible ambition and no small amount of bravado to try to simulate such a campaign in its entirety.
Thankfully, Gary Grigsby and 2by3 had both.
It is difficult to pin down a good starting place in trying to review something like this. A sweeping appraisal would not do the endeavour justice, nor would it give the reader a real understanding of the game. So, let us begin with a simple qualifying statement: it is impossible to recommend this game to anyone who has no interest in the Second World War’s Eastern Front. If you were not reared on the exploits of Guderian, Manstein and Model – or, alternatively, on those of Zhukov, Konev, Vassilevsky and Rokossovsky – do not bother applying. Furthermore, if you are not prepared to sacrifice an hour of your time moving counters around, just to set up for one solitary turn of the Grand Campaign – which is 225 turns long - it would not be conscionable telling you that spending $80USD on ‘War in the East’ is a good idea. This here is an acquired taste.
But what an exquisite taste it can be, for the right player and an earnest mindset.
That said; on to the particulars!
We will start by looking at the manual, because you should read it before and as you play. Yes, it is quite important to do so, in this case. Jumping in head-first is a recipe for both disaster and disappointment. The four hundred (!) page PDF behemoth is a vital tool in making sense of WitE, and answering the many questions that will arise during any novice’s initial experience with the game.
There is a separate Tutorial Quick-Guide that does the trick in the short term, but any serious grapple with WitE will necessitate having the manual open as you play through your first sessions. Not only is it incredibly informative, but it is also well written and very well organized. Kudos to 2by3 for stressing the importance of this often poorly endowed player resource.
Ergonomics, Options, Graphics, Music
The first thing the player sees upon launching WitE, after the standard corporate logos flitter through, is a fascinating bit of historical footage taken straight from wartime archives. The wearied landsers/frontovniks are trudging forward, the panzers roll, artillery fire rattles the earth. Real whizz-bang stuff. Then the menu pops up, and the fun can begin, as soon as one re-sizes the game window. Since WitE defaults to a windowed setting, you will most likely have to expand it to fit your resolution (or preference). Luckily, it scales automatically, so the process is a simple drag and drop.
Players now have the option of slogging through the Grand Campaign, starting anywhere from mid-1941 to mid-1944 (and ending as late as September 1945), or any of just under a dozen smaller scenarios, including the tutorial. The 225-turn ’41 Campaign is the pièce de résistance, here, but one is well advised to get their feet wet with a smaller scenario like ‘Velikiye Luki’, or the ‘Road to Minsk’, instead. The real thing is quite a plunge. After seventy hours of steady play over the course of three weeks, I managed to get all the way to Turn 105.
Before any scenario is loaded, however, there is a plethora of options and preferences to consider. Each scenario/campaign is highly configurable. You can play against the AI, a human player, or hotseat. Additionally, you can either set a defined difficulty level (‘normal’, ‘challenging’ etc) or specify exactly how strong each side is logistically, administratively, infrastructurally and with respect to troop morale. That is to say, you can really tailor your experience of the game. Perhaps best of all, these options can be re-configured during gameplay. If it is becoming too difficult, or the reverse, players can always change the difficulty settings on the fly. They might even choose to switch sides, altogether. This sort of flexibility deserves credit and is not often seen in more perfunctory wargames.
As for more general preferences, numerous tweaks are possible. Feedback levels are especially prominent here. For example, if you want to follow every single battle closely enough to see which weapons are inflicting damage on units during a particular phase, you can. If you instead prefer just to see the immediate outcome – or, indeed, anything in between the two extremes - the option is there.
Once you are done tinkering and select your scenario, you will be dropped into the game proper. And the first thing you will notice is just how beautiful the map is. Hand-drawn, intricate in its detail, it is a 2D marvel. The colors are vivid, the rivers follow natural paths, and there is even a huge legend in the left uppermost corner. The effect is strongly – and intentionally – reminiscent of famous Eastern Front boardgames, like ‘Fire in the East’.
The units themselves are represented by standard, clean NATO symbols. They are differentiated in appearance by nationality, type and formation. For example, Italian units have a yellow counter. German units are grey, instead, but SS counters are a stand-out black. The Soviets, for their part, have red Guards counters to differentiate them from the stock dull brown. When viewing your own units, they will also be colored differently according to the Army Group/Front they belong to. It is an effective, clean cut set-up. There is little animation to speak of, but it is all very slick and professional looking.
Unfortunately, there are also a few criticisms to level at the game, in this respect. The only way to tell HQ units apart from combat units is by the NATO symbol on the counter. It is very, very easy to miss the presence of an important HQ unit in the midst of a throng of its subordinate formations. It is also impossible to tell Air-group HQs from army HQs, which leads to a lot of unnecessary exploratory clicking. Players will need to learn to keep a close eye, indeed. On a similar note, surely there was a better graphical solution for denoting muddy and winter conditions than what 2by3 went with. On an otherwise masterfully constructed map, the adverse weather conditions just look ugly.
The UI, thankfully, is both functional and intuitive. Unlike many of Gary Grigsby’s previous games, one does not need to delve into the deepest secrets of forbidden arcana to achieve communion with the interface. Its premise is quite simple, actually. There are three tabs along the top of the map. A ‘Map Information’ tab, where the player can garner information through various map overlays (for example, the Factory overlay shows you exactly where your industry and factories are concentrated). Then there is an ‘Administration’ tab, for game settings and saving/loading progress. Finally, there is a tab that contains your side’s Order of Battle, production information, losses etc.
It is really quite an elegant and responsive solution to an age-old problem for wargames. The individual buttons are self-explanatory, and most information is but a few simple clicks away. However, it should also be pointed out that detailed unit information screens are, on the flipside, a bit cumbersome. They utilize so-called ‘clickable text’ for functionality. Meaning, that changing a unit’s parent HQ involves knowing to click the ‘HHQ: Bryansk Front’ (for example) text in the unit screen. Perfunctory it may be, but intuitive it is definitely not.
When it comes to music and sound, unfortunately, the developers dropped the ball, somewhat. It feels as if there is only one constantly cycling piece of music that, while majestic and exciting in its own right, gets repetitive very quickly. Sound effects are in the same vein, with a single sound for movement on foot, a sound for movement by train, a camera click for aerial scouting and a particular clip denoting the tumult of battle, with every combat. This aspect of the production was clearly an afterthought, and the game is very, very slightly poorer for it.
Presentation and usability notwithstanding, the real meat of WitE – naturally - lies in its gameplay. The essentials of it are deceptively simple. Each player (human or AI) takes command of either the Axis or the Soviet war effort, on a divisional scale, and then conducts attacks and manoeuvres using an IGOUGO system across a hex-based map. Every unit has an allowance of movement points, an attacking combat value and a defensive combat value. Individual hexes can hold up to three such units. So far, it is all very straightforward and quite abstract. But then you dig a little deeper, and discover that every single one of those counters has its own Table of Organization and Equipment (basically the personnel and equipment comprising the unit) and that there is a complex logistical and infrastructural model in place, underlying it all, which covers movement, supply and the production of resources and materiel.
Each Corps/Army level (and above) formation has its own individually modelled leader in charge of things, which can really make a difference between success and failure, as their various command attributes come into play. Moving things around strategically requires the expenditure of limited rail movement points, while the modification of unit and command structures draws upon a pool of carefully husbanded administrative points.
Combat is modelled with unnerving intricacy. Every ground element (e.g. T-34, Rifle Squad, German Pioneer Sq) has a set of attributes and a number of weapons attached to it (i.e. 7.62mm machine gun). When combat is initiated, WitE simulates an entire exchange of fire between these systems, at various ranges, also taking into account morale, leadership, training, terrain, force ratios, weather conditions etc. The result is displayed in terms of exact numbers of personnel killed, captured and disabled, while armoured vehicles, guns and aircraft are destroyed or damaged individually. Defeated units might retreat, rout, shatter or surrender.
Very little, in fact, is left to the imagination. The complexity of these interplaying variables and factors would be terrifying, if it was not so intuitive. It is absolutely for the best that most air group support functions are automated, because it severely reduces the burden on the player during any given turn. Not only automated, but also handled quite competently, it should be added. But the crazy and the foolhardy are at liberty to manually handle that aspect of the war effort, too.
Considering the scale of this game, the systems above are difficult to criticize. They function as well as one would hope. There is a tenuous, delicate balance here, between the nightmare of managing a thousand separate units individually, and accurately simulating this conflict in all its glory and horror. The following needs to be reiterated, however: a turn in the Grand Campaign can take upwards of an hour. This is not a criticism of the game; it is simply the statement of a fact. For once, the developer has erred on the side of fidelity to detail, rather than ‘streamlining’ features in order to reach a wider audience. The beer and pretzel crowd will not appreciate the nuances of WitE.
The greatest compliment one can pay the game is that, if you let it, it will draw you in almost completely. At a certain point, I stopped thinking in terms of combat values, movement points etc. I knew my warmachine well enough that I could ‘feel’ the ebb and flow of the campaign. Belarus was lost, the Baltic was lost, though my forces continued to grimly hang on just beyond Mogilev and on the approaches to Novogorod. Smolensk would soon come under threat, and a new defensive lynchpin would be needed. The October rasputitsa (muddy season) could not turn the roads to mush quickly enough for my tastes.
The AI opponent, thankfully, seems fairly capable. Better on the defense than on attack, according to the developers themselves, it still displays some tactical nous when trying to break my lines. Hundreds of thousands of my poor troops have fallen victim to envelopment, encirclement and the dreaded kesselschlacht (cauldron battle). It exhibits intelligence in breaking down lines and is proving a challenge, even at a nominal difficulty setting. On the other hand, it did commit a number of the vaunted and highly valued Panzer Divisions to clearing out the Pripyat Marshes, in my ’41 Campaign. For those who have not thrown away a childhood learning about the Eastern Front, there is nothing good about the Marshes for armoured forces. The AI should avoid that terrain like the plague when it comes to its panzers. So far, however, this has been the only worrying sign from an otherwise credible opponent.
Nonetheless, most players will want to boost the resources it has available if they are to get any real challenge out of the game after reaching a certain level of experience. A competent Soviet player can stop the Axis AI in December 1941. Permanently. Using the blizzard turns from December '41 to February '42, and depending on the condition of his forces, he can absolutely devastate the Axis forces, to a point where they will never again be able to muster any real strength. Historical Axis successes require historical Soviet ineptitude. In this sense, it is not difficult to break the historicity of the game's premier campaign quite quickly, so plan your set-ups accordingly.
It also needs to be noted that there are some very real differences between playing the Axis and the Soviets, at any given stage of the war. For example, only the Soviets can actually build units from nothing. The Germans can break down individual divisions into regiments, but they cannot build new units from scratch. Axis units are, therefore, precious commodities, to be protected as much as possible. Reinforcements aside, the army you begin the war with is the army you will have at the end. The quality of that army, however, is immense.
The Soviet military on the other hand, evolves from a herd of bumbling fools in 1941, to a colossus of the battlefield in 1944. The Soviet player can start combining rifle divisions into rifle corps in mid ’42, and tank brigades into tank corps shortly thereafter. When the latter come into play, it is generally game over, give or take a few months or years. It is a brilliant system, and most players will find that they have a clear preference for one side or the other, after trying them both out. They just play very differently.
Aside from configuring various options before and during any given scenario or campaign, WitE players also have access to one of the most powerful editors that has ever been seen in this sort of game. Hardcoded rules, the map and dates are the only aspects of the game one cannot modify. Virtually every other piece of data is fair game. If you were inclined to, you could create wholly new weapons, ground elements (a hypothetical new tank?), formations/units and leaders. Given enough free time and some dedication, you could recast the war in a wholly new light – or even churn out fantasy scenarios. This represents virtually endless replayability.
If you do not like the fact that the ’41 Campaign treats the Soviets so roughly during the first months and years of the war, change it! Or maybe you want to see the war play out with the Germans having access to similar manpower reserves as the Soviets? The editor, on its own, makes WitE an infinitely more attractive proposition – even if you felt that the 150+ hours of enjoyment from the ’41 Campaign alone is not enough.
The game features a secure-server based PBEM/hotseat multiplayer. Both serve to discourage cheating, and both are viable means of playing the game with a friend. Considering that between one and two turns a day is the likely maximum speed of said multiplayer experience, however, be ready for some frustration. It is easier to imagine an opponent who is prepared for a yearlong tango on the Eastern Front than to actually find one. Luckily, the AI is not bad at all, considering.
At $80USD, Gary Grigsby’s War in the East is a serious gaming investment. In the end, though, you get what you pay for. WitE is a monster of a game. Awe-inspiring, beautiful and complex – it is clearly a labour of love from a master of his craft; a love letter to grognards everywhere. The downsides here are inherent in the game’s design, they are rarely actual flaws. However, consider the purchase carefully. If you consider yourself a wargamer and an Eastern Front officianado, you owe yourself this experience. On the other hand, if complexity frightens you, or if your interest is quite casual, take stock of whether the money could not be put to better use elsewhere. After all, firing up the Grand Campaign and seeing more than a thousand counters along a map dozens of screens large is not everyone’s cup of tea.