Zhukov Never Had It So Good

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't. - Mark Twain

This is no blitzkrieg, that's for certain. After three weeks and the annihilation of several Soviet Army corps, Operation Barbarossa appears prematurely stalled west of the Dnieper River. That's good news for me, because I'm playing as the Soviets in this game of Gary Grigsby's War in the East. It appears that I have successfully avoided the catastrophes that befell the Soviets in the summer of 1941.

Which is disappointing, because the Germans really should have done better than this. I can't decide whether their underwhelming attack is due to weak AI or the fact that the real Soviet army had Stalin's irrational mandates to contend with, and I don't.

Controlling the Soviets in War in the East, I immediately understand the severity of the German threat. I have played that side before, and I know the scale and objectives of the German invasion. Soviet commanders, on the other hand, were in the dark due to a complete breakdown in intelligence and planning in the months before Barbarossa. Stalin had reacted to German war preparations by burying his head in the sand and insisting that evidence of Hitler's treachery could not be trusted.

The biggest advantage I have, however, is the ability to be pragmatic. Immediately after the invasion, I started pulling Soviet units back to stronger defensive positions. A lot of divisions escaped German encirclements. Rather than rushing my unprepared reserve units to the front line where they could be carved up by panzers, I held them at defensive strongpoints where they would have time to dig in and finish preparing for battle. The Germans never got the chance to obliterate the large swaths of the Red Army that they did historically.

A Soviet general who acted this way would have been shot for treason and defeatism, which is one reason why the Germans were able to encircle and destroy so many Soviet units. The destruction of a large portion of the Red Army, in turn, contributed to Barbarossa's near-success in spite of its unbelievably ambitious objectives and Hitler's ill-timed meddling.

Yet good military decisions can end up making for a worse wargame, and I suspect if I want my defense of Moscow to be anywhere near as dramatic as the real thing, I will need to submit to some Stalinist house-rules. Because a game like War in the East can throw as much math and historical fidelity at the Eastern Front as it likes, but it will still miss the heart of the thing if the impact of personality and temperament is discarded.

On the Eastern Front, as is so often the case throughout history, there are forks in the road where there is the rational thing, and then there is what was actually done. When the Wehrmacht was racing toward Moscow, the Soviets desperately needed to trade space for time, but Stalin (as Hitler would do later in the war) would not permit it on the scale necessary to avert disaster. He convinced himself that if he simply executed enough officers and imprisoned enough "cowards," the Red Army could somehow stop the German advance in spite of its complete unpreparedness.

Increasingly, I want strategy games to hit me with that kind of irrationality. Because it's often the irrational that drives history. We know that the Union Army was not going to break at Gettysburg, but we forget that Lee knew the Confederacy was unraveling along the Mississippi, and that the Army of the Potomac had always run before. The Crusades are, on their face, ridiculous propositions. Yet they happened, because kings once believed in miracles.

Strategy games and wargames increasingly favor the grand campaign over the scenario, but in giving the player complete control over an empire or an army, they remove much of history's strangeness. I do not want a more detailed Order of Battle or a better economic model. I want the wild-card factors of megalomania and optimism, of faith and treachery. I want a game like War in the East to have the option of forcing me to respond to dictates from Hitler or Stalin (Waitaminute, Stalingrad? When did that become an objective?).

Not many games do this. I hope that Paradox's Crusader Kings 2 and Magna Mundi, with their focus on internal politics and dynastic intrigue, will put strategic considerations in conflict with more unpredictable, more personal dynamics. Still, any time you build a system, you open the door for players to game it. Personally, I like my historical strategy games like I like my history: unpredictable and capricious.

Comments

Good read!

I can understand the impulse for more craziness, and certainly it would make for more interesting games in many respect, but I think you're overlooking a key factor in gaming, especially in historical wargaming:

"I could have done it better."

In the War in the East scenario, the question isn't so much "If I were Zhukov or Timoshenko could I have survived the impossible orders and stop the Germans anyway?"

The question War in the East is asking is, instead, "What if Stalin hadn't been a paranoid maniac?" Or possibly, "What if that coup that Stalin was so afraid of actually happened and now you're the one in charge?"

So, while I'd find some academic interest in playing out the "real" scenario as an optional very hard mode or some such, I don't think I'd be all that enthralled if the whole game played like that. After all, the reason the situation was so terrible for the Soviets was because the situation combined with Stalin's orders left most commanders in an impossible position. Putting a player in the same impossible position might be realistic, but is it fun?

I have my doubts.

That said, I think there might be a balance to strike in there somewhere. Take a new game and design it from the ground up with a Stalin meter (or a Darth Vader meter, if you're playing "Imperial Admiral", as it amounts to the same thing) where you get positive points for obeying orders and winning, and lose points for disobeying orders and losing. Since obeying = losing, you have to somehow strike a balance between the two and not get executed. The key element is to make sure that the actual mechanics of the Stalin meter are both hidden from the player and indeed variable from game to game and change as the war goes on. That way there's always a risk in anything you do leading to Lefortovo and a firing squad...but maybe, just maybe, you can pull it out anyway and win the Order of Victory.

And then get dumped in Odessa after the war because you're now considered "politically unreliable." But that's just life in the Red Army, eh?

The guy rolls a hard 6 at Rabbitcon, and all of a sudden he wants randomness in his titles

Man, now I want to play Revolution Under Siege.

jng2058 wrote:

I can understand the impulse for more craziness, and certainly it would make for more interesting games in many respect, but I think you're overlooking a key factor in gaming, especially in historical wargaming:

"I could have done it better."

In the War in the East scenario, the question isn't so much "If I were Zhukov or Timoshenko could I have survived the impossible orders and stop the Germans anyway?"

The question War in the East is asking is, instead, "What if Stalin hadn't been a paranoid maniac?" Or possibly, "What if that coup that Stalin was so afraid of actually happened and now you're the one in charge?"

So, while I'd find some academic interest in playing out the "real" scenario as an optional very hard mode or some such, I don't think I'd be all that enthralled if the whole game played like that.

Excellent points, and I'm not sure my idea would actually work. But I also think the "Could I have done better?" question is frequently uninteresting, particularly in longer campaigns. Could you do better than the Soviets did under Stalin? Of course you can, because Stalin was a huge constraint that commanders had to deal with. If you're freed from that constraint, I think you get a very bland campaign.

It's even worse in most grand-strategy games, where caution and patience are almost always rewarded, because there are very few mechanisms that can disrupt the maturation of your plans. When you are freed from every consideration beyond the strategic, it becomes very easy to outdo the historical record. It also becomes very easy to fall into some boring routines.

That's especially true when the AI has trouble with long-term planning, which is pretty much always. You're not exactly fighting Halder and Manstein in WitE, are you? So not only do I not have Stalin's "no retreat" orders to contend with, but I've also go an AI that isn't going to concentrate forces and exploit opportunities the way a good human opponent would. At that point, I feel like success is a foregone conclusion.

I like the idea of tracking performance in two categories like success and obedience. I think it would be fascinating to play a wargame where you have to balance your career against your judgment. Then you could decide when to burn the credit you've accrued, and when to grit your teeth and give bad orders your best shot. Panzer General comes close to this in some ways with its branching campaign. To accomplish the wildly ambitious goals laid out for you, you'll almost certainly burn through your best troops. But if you play conservatively, you are punished.

War in the East? I thought it was GWJ that was supposed to take over TMA—the fox is in the henhouse now!

jng2058 wrote:

So, while I'd find some academic interest in playing out the "real" scenario as an optional very hard mode or some such, I don't think I'd be all that enthralled if the whole game played like that. After all, the reason the situation was so terrible for the Soviets was because the situation combined with Stalin's orders left most commanders in an impossible position. Putting a player in the same impossible position might be realistic, but is it fun?

In my delightfully naive and child-like way, I'm going to bring up Memoir '44. In the Eastern Front expansion, for those who aren't familiar, many of the early Soviet scenarios are played with the Russian Command rules. You start by first choosing a card and putting it face-down under the Political Commissar chip. Then on your turn, instead of playing a card from your hand, you have to (with a couple of chance exceptions) play the card under the chip: choose a new card from your hand, put it under the chip, and play the card you placed there last turn.

So you get handcuffed to a strategy that's planned too far in advance and get almost no opportunity to respond to new developments and surprises. Instead, you often have to press on with what could be illogical, unsound, or a plain slaughter because the commissar says that's the order you have to give. It's a bloody annoying rule, but I think effectively conveys what it would have been like trying to command Soviet soldiers with Stalin's lackeys running the show.

Gravey wrote:

the Russian Command rules

That's actually a pretty brilliant mechanic.

Gravey wrote:

It's a bloody annoying rule, but I think effectively conveys what it would have been like trying to command Soviet soldiers with Stalin's lackeys running the show.

And shooting the commissar, winning the battle, then getting shot in the next purge is hard to implement in a game.

I've been thinking about this set of problems off and on (mostly off) ever since Starcraft I and Myth II, starting with noticing how unrealistic it is to know everything your troops see and be able to expect them to follow your orders no matter what.

There was a game called Legion Arena that was kind of Total War-ish while limiting your ability to give orders after battle was joined, but my experience with the demo was disappointing. More recently, Mount & Blade does the best job I've yet seen of modeling the difficulty of commanding from the front and also often gives you higher-ups who seem to be complete idiots -- but in (mostly) real time and a small scale.

I think the real problem here is one of balancing fun vs. frustration -- too many of the constraints that shape real wars are simply frustrating in a game.

Hey-o, new here, first post, that sort of thing.

Great comments from all, great site so far too; glad I stumbled onto it.

I've often thought about the possibility of having a group multiplayer PBEM game: one guy's the Halder (or you-know-who, depending on the scale of the game), other guys are von Leeb, or perhaps if it's Operational, you and buddy's are von Bock with Guderian and Kesselring taking orders, that sort of thing).

So basically the units on your turn you can command are dictated ahead of time in the game setup (with perhaps the ability of the Top Dog to reassign forces as necessary) and you have a +/- on your score depending on how quickly you take objectives assigned to you by your commander. You'd also have to request strategic air support that may not be available to you if it's already in action (or the Commander feels like being a prick).

Could play out terribly, could be a lot of fun. Likely a lot of tricky things to figure out (like supply, does the Commander figure out supply and manage that sort of logistics or is it left to game mechanics/AI?)

The whole thing with the "I could do better" approach, is you can... against a stupider enemy without the same constraints. With far better AI or implementation of some of the constraints, you could get a closer, and far more interesting, approach. Also, part of the fun of games like that is thinking laterally and trying to figure out how the hell to win with massive disadvantages and insane orders.

ClockworkHouse wrote:
Gravey wrote:

the Russian Command rules

That's actually a pretty brilliant mechanic.

It reminds me of the Traveller Fifth Frontier War mechanic, where the commander chits have a combat rating and a 'strategy' rating. A strategy rating of 3 meant you had to plan that commanders stack movement three turns in advance. A strategy rating of 0 meant you could just move the stack wherever you wanted, as in a normal wargame. So you had plotted movement for your armies. Inevitably most of your strongest generals had the worst strategy numbers; so you always hoped to recruit the "crappy" generals with the 1 or 0 strategy to dance around the slow guys; but you needed the strong guys to guard. It made the game surprisingly complicated with such a simple rule.

Gravey wrote:

War in the East? I thought it was GWJ that was supposed to take over TMA—the fox is in the henhouse now!

Grognards can't entire a building without being invited. Problem is that someone gave me the keys.

Gravey wrote:
jng2058 wrote:

So, while I'd find some academic interest in playing out the "real" scenario as an optional very hard mode or some such, I don't think I'd be all that enthralled if the whole game played like that. After all, the reason the situation was so terrible for the Soviets was because the situation combined with Stalin's orders left most commanders in an impossible position. Putting a player in the same impossible position might be realistic, but is it fun?

In my delightfully naive and child-like way, I'm going to bring up Memoir '44. In the Eastern Front expansion, for those who aren't familiar, many of the early Soviet scenarios are played with the Russian Command rules. You start by first choosing a card and putting it face-down under the Political Commissar chip. Then on your turn, instead of playing a card from your hand, you have to (with a couple of chance exceptions) play the card under the chip: choose a new card from your hand, put it under the chip, and play the card you placed there last turn.

So you get handcuffed to a strategy that's planned too far in advance and get almost no opportunity to respond to new developments and surprises. Instead, you often have to press on with what could be illogical, unsound, or a plain slaughter because the commissar says that's the order you have to give. It's a bloody annoying rule, but I think effectively conveys what it would have been like trying to command Soviet soldiers with Stalin's lackeys running the show.

Which is funny, because I feel like the Command & Colors system (of Memoir '44 and other games) already hamstrings you by forcing your moves in a certain, often useless direction. I'd almost only want to play the system in cases where issuing orders was a real problem (as in C&C Ancients) or where there were higher orders or other factors that messed everything up for you, as in Barbarossa or Market Garden.

I guess the problem I have with the C&C system is that it usually gets applied to battles I know to be fierce and dynamic encounters, while the system much better models battles that embody the despair of plodding inefficiency.

Maybe they should focus on WWI, or Vietnam.

Mousetrap wrote:
ClockworkHouse wrote:
Gravey wrote:

the Russian Command rules

That's actually a pretty brilliant mechanic.

It reminds me of the Traveller Fifth Frontier War mechanic, where the commander chits have a combat rating and a 'strategy' rating. A strategy rating of 3 meant you had to plan that commanders stack movement three turns in advance. A strategy rating of 0 meant you could just move the stack wherever you wanted, as in a normal wargame. So you had plotted movement for your armies. Inevitably most of your strongest generals had the worst strategy numbers; so you always hoped to recruit the "crappy" generals with the 1 or 0 strategy to dance around the slow guys; but you needed the strong guys to guard. It made the game surprisingly complicated with such a simple rule.

That's either brilliant or terrifying, depending on whether you're playing on a computer or a table.

Highly recommend checking out Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast on I-tunes. A few months back he had a great series on the Eastern Front and all the insanity that took place. One of the biggest problems for the Soviets was Stalin initially wanted to keep the peace and trusted Hitler wouldn't attack. In the first few days, Stalin even refused to believe that it was a concerted invasion and not just the acts of a few rogue German generals.

There are also some great anecdotes about Stalin's ruthlessness, including how minefields were deployed behind Russian troops to keep them from running; how Stalin sent his own daughter to die in Siberia because his son-in-law surrendered to the Germans; and how civilians at St Petersburg were told to go eat their children rather than evacuate the city.

I especially loved the story about a Russian company commander who was ordered to cross a raging river because of an accidental order. When he requested pontoons, the commissar suggested that perhaps he was stalling because he was a coward. So the Russian officer orders all his men - many of whom were from the Steppes and didn't know how to swim - to ford the river immediately. Amazingly, he's promoted despite the fact only 5 of his 100 men make it across alive.

wordsmythe wrote:

Grognards can't entire a building without being invited.

hey gwj I need your help
I entire a building without being invited
what should I do…is this dangerous ?

You entire building? What where you think? Thats dangerus man.

muttonchop wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

Grognards can't entire a building without being invited.

hey gwj I need your help
I entire a building without being invited
what should I do…is this dangerous ?

I ENTIRE A BILDING W/O BING INVITED 2 WUT SHUD I DO?? I'M SO CONFUSED!!!!!!!

WHERE DO BILDING COME FROM??

*edit*

Oh, and to try make a comment pertinent to the topic.

Interesting that being too knowledgeable and too skilled at a game can make the game a worse experience. Luckily my tactical nous is a lot like that of Stalin so I send my little digital dudes to their deaths en masse and seldom think to make a tactical retreat.

Similar things have been said already, but perhaps an element of randomisation could be introduced that forces 'bad' choices. For instance a deck of 'cards' that give totally insane objectives, but failing or not attempting to accomplish the objective would fail the game because 'you' the commander would end up in front of a firing squad.

How I mine Sean?

Excellent post. I know exactly how you feel. I haven't played War in the East, but I've been playing the Hearts of Iron games since their inception, and share your disappointment at the ease in which the eastern front tends to be won in grand campaign games. I've generally gone in and modded files to give the Soviets more resources to field units, but it never really worked. The 1941 blitzkrieg would devastate them even more than it did historically, and the war could easily be wrapped up in 1942 if I so chose. Doing so usually meant I'd lose interest in the game entirely, and start a new one. It is interesting that you mention Crusader Kings 2 ( a title I eagerly await), because the one game I've played in recent years that I found fairly challenging is Crusader Kings, because of the penalties you take for taking a lot of new territory quickly. I quickly learned how difficult it was going to be to rebuild the Byzantine Empire back to its greatest extent after mass rebellions from vassals that were being given new territories in Asia minor as I rolled back the Turks.

I went and looked this game up after you reading your post about it. Was possibly intending to buy it, but the 80$ price tag stopped me cold. Is it worth that? I would definitely pay that much for a game that would give me hundreds of hours of enjoyment, but not if playing the Germans is so easy that I'd almost have to try to lose the war to keep it going.

darviathar wrote:

I went and looked this game up after you reading your post about it. Was possibly intending to buy it, but the 80$ price tag stopped me cold. Is it worth that? I would definitely pay that much for a game that would give me hundreds of hours of enjoyment, but not if playing the Germans is so easy that I'd almost have to try to lose the war to keep it going.

It's a truly massive game, but I hesitate at that price, too.

Then again, it doubles as a reference for the composition and organization of each army. I'll admit I've used deep historical games like this for such things before.