Thursday, 3 April 2014

Hitler turns East, or Barbarossa made easy and small

What it does?

Hitler’s Turns East covers the first 10 months of the German invasion of the Soviet Union from June 1941 to April 1942. It also, at least according to its blurb, allow you to understand why Barbarossa filed or why its designer, Ted Raicer, thinks it failed.

How it looks?

Well it looks quite nice. You have a 17x22” map covering the bulk of European Russia and the western soviet republics. Counters representing German armies, German Panzer Corps, Russian Rifle and Mechanized Armies.  The counters have NATO symbols, historical names, set up or reinforcement information, and combat value on them. Some specific counters like the Stukas and the soviet T-34 have stylized silhouettes on them. The map is drawn in light colours and possess a conventional hex grid in it. Boxes for orders and tracks for time and victory point are printed on the map itself. The turn track possess all the relevant information (weather, supply range, number of Stuka available, replacements) in each turn box.  The rules are short and have the relevant tables (movement, combat, orders, command points) on the back.  The rules are also clear and concise. I have not found any real problem in reading them. The only serious issue was the setup of three German armies that was wrongnly printed on the counters. Replacement counters have bene provided and the corrected set up hexes are provided online.

The Counters, the Crosses and Stars are the front of the order markers.

How this thing plays?
Hitler Turns East is a reasonably simple game with army units supported by Mechanized and Panzer Corps. It is based on hex and the underlying engine is pretty conventional as far hex wargames are concerned. Unit have only one combat factor printed on them, their movement values being attributed to them based on the order their command organization receives.  The sequence of play is again pretty conventional, at least on the surface. During each turn you have a weather phase, a reinforcements and replacement phase, a command phase, a movement and command phase, and a victory phase.  Weather is based on historical patterns with some twists. It does not only influence movement, but also availability of air supports, supply lines, and, critically, initiative. The Germans have the initiative when the weather is good or passable, the Soviet when it is bad. After the first half of the game the weather is not nice for a stroll, or a war… thus the game is neatly divided in two halves. The German onslaught east, the Soviet payback.  Weather (good one) also allows the conduct of the all important mobile assaults by the German panzers. 

The Command phase is important and not as tradition as you think at first. You roll for command points (with modifiers for weather and some specific situations) and then buy orders for the NEXT turn. Then you place the orders you already bought in the activation cup. The orders are important. They allow specific movement directions (westward or eastward) and attacks. They are quite limiting in what you can do and you cannot do. The fact that you have to decided priorities (based on an amount of command points that will not allow you to do everything you want)  before seeing what will happen in the current turn forces you  to plan in advance and cater for different course of action.
This necessity  for a sound plan (or at a least a plan at all) is reinforced by the movement and combat phase. Here you activate your big command groups (more on that shortly) in a random order. You pick an order marker from the cup and allocates to a command activating it. Well you decided what  command will activate and what it will do, but the order of activation is random. You do not know if the next order chit will be yours or from the enemy. You do not even know if the next order chit will be the one that you need to complete your masterful scheme. As command friction is concerned this a quite nice way to introduce fog of war and limited intelligence without plots and umpires. The basic of mobement and combat are easy to follow. Movement is based on the eternal movement points (and the order allocates a movement allowance to infantry and mobile troops) and the combats are a simple odd based affairs with a d6. Supply rules are simple, based on a chain of controlled cities, and have twists for deterioration of logistic network with bad weather and pockets. 

The last element to discuss in this package are reinforcements and victory.  As you expect the Germans have a big army at start and very little in the term of new units and replacements. The soviet have a big army (not that good but big) and a bigger one coming constantly. They have also a lot or replacement and the ability to generate new units as the Germans take victory points.  Victory points are important towns and cities, all located in Russia proper. This will force the Germans to rush forward and leave Ukraine and Belarus behind them as soon as practicable. It also means that the more they push east, the more they kill Soviet troops, the more Soviet troops are raised to push them back.
Completing the package you have attrition (do not get encircled), Panzer Leaders (they can give their own orders to their panzers), Stukas, partisan, and the soviet Black Sea fleet (allowing to keep Odessa in supply and moving troops by sea).  As much the package is small it is complete.

The Fronts and Army Groups
Command requires a few more words. One of the first thing you notice when exploring the map and the rules is the emphasis on the fact that both sides forces are divided in autonomous entities, Army Group for the Germans, Fronts for the Soviet.  Each entity is assigned a specific order each turn and perform its activities independently from the others. Even the play order is based on them. This means that, as happened historically you have to plan for your operations inside the command boundaries and, even more importantly, adjust them to what happens outside. It also breaks the IGO-YUGO mould quite handily. Even if you are lucky and get all your activations in a row the restriction on moving outside the borders made you

The downside of this system is that these divisions feel perfectly symmetrical and artificial. For each German Army Group there is a corresponding Soviet Front. In history the boundaries were not so clear cut. Also the rigid boundaries make the historical opening for Army Group Centre a moot point. Historically Hoth Panzergruppe moved north straddling in AGN territory as the northern pincer of the Minsk envelopment. You cannot do that because the rules do not allow you to do a mobile assault across the boundary. Yet Hoth’s panzers cannot mobile assault south of the boundary because there is a forest hex that prohibits mobile assaults. There are ways to repeat the historical net results, but the thing feels a bit puzzling to me.  Anyway this is just a minor quibble. 

Is this Barbarossa?
Descriptions and discussions are important, but how these elements in the end stack up for a final judgement on this game?

Well, despite all the historical balance issues linked with Barbarossa itself (namely the Soviet player see his army wiped out, rebuilt, and wiped out again a couple of times before starting to  fully get in the game…) I think that Ted did a very good job with Hitler Turn East. First of all the game works. Second the game presents historical problems for the most part. Of course there are some inaccuracies (like the inability to perform the correct opening) but the feel of Barbarossa and the early counteroffensive are here.  I like how the differences in Soviet and German doctrines are portrayed in the game.  

At first I was a bit worried about the possible lack of German attrition.  As much I do not like David Stahel's books (he spend too much time in political discussions…) he has a strong and valid point on the casualties suffered by the Werhmacht in the summer of 1941. Even Guderian hints that his panzers were running out of spares and steam at the end of the summer.  Even Ted in a recent article points out that the summer attrition was one of the deciding factors of Barbarossa. But, at first reading the rules makes you wonder if the Germans will suffer losses at all. When they are under Blitz orders the Panzer Corps ignore losses in defence, they convert DE results to DR. in attack the ignore A1 results. This seems a nice way to roll forward toll free.  Well when you start to play the game you discover that exchanges or B1 (Both Side Loss or Bloodbath?) results are less uncommon than you thought at first glance.  Even more noteworthy is the way the counterattack rule interplay with the German tank forces.  The soviet player totals combat factor of Soviet (in LOC) and Germans units in contact and then roll on the Counterattack table. Results can be A1 or B1. Losses have to be taken from in contact forces. Well, this means that, on average,  the B1 results will end up  on the panzers.  Why? Well you end up having the panzer in contact with supplies soviet forces more often than the infantry. If you push (as you are more or less forced to do) your panzers forward they will bear the brunt of the Counterattacks.  The net results is a panzer force quite powerful but reasonably brittle on the long run. I think that this approach is the best one at this scale. With such big units (infantry armies and panzer corps or Soviet armies) the day to day accumulated attrition on the German mobile formations is difficult to simulate with only two steps and monthly turns. Furthermore you need to find a way to still allow the German player to push as far as was historically possible.  In the end while not the most transparent of the representation the attrition ingrained in the counterattack rule works. 

Yet this attrition will not stop the German steam roller alone. And here we have the biggest ‘problem’ of the game, or rather the biggest problem of the campaign. In the end the Germans were stopped by a combination of reserves, attrition, overextension and competent soviet leadership. In the game you need to have a competent soviet player. The Soviet player needs to plan in advance and start to build in depth defences (only to see them moved forward by Stalin and his mandated counterattacks) as soon as possible. Even doing that he has to realize his whole army is going to disappear at least twice during the game.  He has also to hurt the Germans. Simply running away will not save the motherland. As much there is space to trade there is also a necessity to weaken the German forces. As much this seems an impossible task the fact that there is a gap between the slow moving infantry armies and the panzers means that there will be opening for "successful" attacks. One thing that has to be remembered is that as much the Soviet army is replenishing its forces constantly the germans have a very limited number of replacements and paltry reinforcements.  Yet Hitler Turns East is a game were both players, at least in the first half, are running in the same direction, eastward.  In a broad historical sense this is correct, yet I also realize that it can be frustrating, error prone, luck based, and not welcome by some players. On BGG there have been several comments about Barbarossa games in general and the fact that they are boring for the Soviet player until the winter. Well I think there are hectic and desperate, not boring. Still if seeing one rampant army is not your cup of tea stay away from it.

In summary I think that Hitler Turns  East largely succeeds in providing the players with a fast, reasonably accurate game capable to present some strong insights on the actual Operation Barbarossa.  There are some compromises (like the evenly matched army groups) but as a whole the game highlights what is important in a small and fast package. There is the difference between infantry and mobile formations. The fact that German advances were closely related to the number of armoured formations committed along a given axis is here. There are differences between the two armies. The fact that the German have access to the Blitz order and airpower is a broad brush, but successful, representation of the different doctrines. There is Stalin forward defence approach and it makes sense. Stalin attacks have some abilities to hurt the Germans were they feel it most, in the mobile formations. The game is also effectively dealing with the big encirclements. You can graphically reproduce them with the fast moving panzer corps and their mobile assaults. I think that this reinforces the first point of this list. You cannot have an historical game on the Russian front were all forces are the same. It will simply not work. As much Phil Sabin’s Eastern Front II aspires to cover the whole war it is a flawed game that, even if it presents a plausible narrative, attach the narrative to the wrong reasons. On this same blog I once strongly criticized Ted for having put so many restrictions in place in his game on the invasion of France. These restriction were there to force an historical script but, in my opinion, they were a striking case of doing the right thing on a game for the wrong reasons. With Hitler Turns East Ted demonstrated that he can provide a package where the right things are done for the right reasons. 

Well you  will now argues that the Stalin Counterattack rule is a sort of straight jacket put into place to avoid the soviet player to simply run to the east and barricade himself out of reach of the Germans. It could be, but it also forces on you pre-war plans (based on counterattacks and forward defence) and the fact that you cannot run to the east until you evacuate your factories (an element directly represented in other games) and especially you cannot simply surrender mobilization areas without a fight. Yes it is a straight jacket, but it is a straight jacket as movement rates. Historical wargames are historical because they attempt to put you in a specific situation faced with options and restrictions that were plausible for your historical counterparts.  A player is not a counterfactual historian devoid of any connection with reality. In this case the Soviet player has to balance his own priorities with those of the boss. Stalin wanted (with reason) to keep the invaders as far away from Moscow and its mobilization basin (and rail hub) as possible. We have been served for years by historians that created a myth of the Soviet Army willingly trading space for time. It was wrong. To a certain extent in my opinion the Stalin’s rule also obviates to the need of  detailed mobilization rules. There is also the fact that the rules is quite beneficial for the soviet player allowing him to attack several time in the turn with little risks. Also, as I pointed out earlier, often this rules will be the only way the dreaded German Panzers will suffer losses.  Considering you want to inflict losses and really keep the Germans away from the victory point cities and towns  the Stalin’s counterattack is a bonus. Of course as the soviet player you have to nail in your head that these counterattack will happen and you have to plan accordingly. If you just consider them random events they will ruin your defence. 

The (minor) complaints
Well  minor complaints… I have one… I think that the layout of turn record track is puzzling. I understand why it has been done this way, but I do not find convenient at all Having the text oriented in the same direction all across the map makes reading easier, both solo and face to face…
Said that, this is only a very minor complain. The other “negative point” of this game could be game balance. The Soviet player need a lot of experience. Playing the Germans tends to be a tad easier an probably more fun for the first half. You have to play the soviets times and time until you are comfortable with juggling your troops between the various fronts.

The net result
 As much the reader know I can have some doubts on some of Ted’s designs I think Hitler Turns East is a very good product. It does not only give you a good representation of Barbarossa, it is also fun and engaging. And what to say about the big subtitle on the cover the ATO special issue? Well I think that Ted’s answers is attrition, soviet resistance, and overextension. More or less mine.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for a comprehensive and entertaining review. I have both versions of the game and now look forward to playing more than ever.