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.