Where to begin? Have you ever heard of grognards? Originally, this word stood for an old-timer soldier, the word apparently originating from the Napoleonic era. Today it refers to hard-core wargamers. A niche that migrated from board games to PC games, and perhaps one of the oldest PC gaming groups to exist.
The success and popularity of War in the East has a lot to do with this group. See, the original version (called War in Russia) of this game was published back in 1984, by Gary Grigsby. A few other games in the same series followed, and a decade later in 1993 a new version of the game was published. Grigsby (obviously not the only person in the team) continued with his WW2 games, covering other theatres before eventually returning to the Eastern Front in 2010 with the release of Gary Grigsby’s War in the East.
Covers the years from 1941 to 1945.
Eastern Front from Southern Finland to Baku, from Berlin to the Urals.
From regiments to brigades, divisions and corps on the map, with company-sized units off-map.
Simulates air and ground war.
Complex production and equipment system.
Some ten years later the game is still going strong, receiving regular updates and holding a steady player base of hardcore fans. What gives?
Nothing Compares to You
Let’s start by saying that there simply isn’t another game that would present the Eastern Front in this detail (Operational Art of War IV comes close). You have countless other games about World War 2, but none that allow you to smash enemy frontlines with airpower and panzer divisions, or drive all the way into Berlin by combining your tank brigades into Tank Corps, whilst obliterating the frontline with the help of rocket artillery.
Perhaps the most important bit is the fact that the above-mentioned units are presented with equipment, and not as simple manpower points or attack and defence values. You have tanks, you have infantry and support squads, airplanes and artillery pieces, reconnaissance vehicles and cavalry squads. All tied to a complicated production system which allows conversion of tanks, production of individual equipment and mobilization of manpower.
All of that works in the background. Your mission is moving those brigades, divisions and corps, as well as their HQ’s and associated air armies around the map. Either aiming for Urals or Berlin. In the full campaign, you have over 200 turns to make your moves…obviously, most games don’t make that far, and PBEM games can take years to reach the end.
Don’t worry though, with the help of AI the game allows for some beer&pretzel gaming too.
From regiments to corps
The two sides have somewhat different command structures and mechanics, which nonetheless mostly play out the same. The basic unit for either side is the division. The German divisions are the strongest in the game, with the Axis Allies wielding considerably weaker divisions, but still stronger than the Soviet rifle divisions that clutter the map.
Early in the game, the Soviet units are mostly speed bumps. They do pick up experience as the game goes on, and also undergo some organisational changes. An individual division, even if it holds the guard status, is never going to match a German division. However, the Soviets can form corps units, which later on turn out to be stronger than any of the Axis units.
Germans and Finnish units have the unique ability to break down into regiments, which can roughly match Soviet rifle divisions in strength. The Hungarian, Romanian and Slovakian units are often considerably weaker, but they do have their purposes and moments too.
War in the East uses an OOB structure, where combat units are part of HQs, which in turn are part of higher-up HQs. A vast variety of support units from companies to regiment can either be assigned directly to combat units or the headquarters, from where they perform their functions. These artillery units, construction and pioneer battalions, assaults gun companies and such are an important part of the game.
Whereas the Axis order of battle is historical, with units appearing and withdrawing on historical dates, the Soviets get free hands to build up their units, though obviously they too have plenty of historical units in the mix.
The Table of Organization and Equipment (TOE) plays a big role in the game, as the units and formations went through tons of changes throughout the war. A 1941 infantry division looks much different from its 1945 counterpart. Each unit is assigned to a certain TOE, and each TOE can be set to upgrade to another type. This also allows for widely different units, meaning that two ’41 panzer divisions might look completely different.
In general, the Axis TOEs get weaker as time goes by, whereas the Soviets grow stronger after their initial defeats. Whether or not you can take advantage of this depends on how the war is going for you.
Air war simplified – somewhat
Land units are presented as counters, moving along the hex map based on movement points. But what about air units? How and what do they look like?
The basic on-map unit is an airbase, with the actual operational unit being the squadron. These come in different sizes, and can be from a couple of planes to forty planes, or more if you get creative in the editor.
The squadrons arrive in the national reserve, from where they can be assigned to any airbase on the map. The airbases follow the order of battle, as they are assigned to higher up HQ’s, which are tied to army groups. This affects which of your units they are going to support in battle.
The air war can be easy to manage if you just move around the airbases and assign the squadrons to where there is space…or very difficult if you want to min-max, do the kabuki dances, and make sure you get the maximum effect of everything you do. Playing against the AI I tend to just make sure I have some planes everywhere.
The Soviets again have a bit different setup from the Axis, as they can create air squadrons for the cost of admin points, and having a bigger production surplus they don’t need to be so picky which squadron goes where.
The available planes can be divided into recon planes, fighters, fighter bombers, level bombers, tactical bombers and dive bombers, as well as night-fighters. Each squadron can only hold one type. The available planes change throughout the war, and the squadrons can either be updated to a new plane type manually or automatically.
Economy, production and equipment
The production chain begins from resources, which are harvested from “resource factories”, or basically cities and towns on the map that produce resource points. These are then moved to factories which turn them into supplies. Supplies are used by your units and by aircraft, vehicle, heavy industry and ground element factories.
There’s also oil resources and fuel factories, though in no point of my over a thousand hours in the game have I ran into fuel shortages on either side. Or supply shortages for that troops for that matter.
Let’s take a quick look at what the different factories do in WitE:
Aircraft factories produce set airplanes
Vehicle factories produce trucks
Ground element factories produce set tanks etc.
Heavy industry factories produce armament points
The tanks (assault guns, recon cars etc included) and airplanes are pre-determined. That is, on the map you’ll find that in this city there are 11 Panther D -tanks being produced each turn. Different factories activate at different times, and can upgrade to other models.
Infantry equipment and artillery pieces are produced via armament points. These calculations depend on what your units need, with formulas then churning out the numbers and delivering what they can based on available resources. Every piece of equipment requires manpower to actually be added to the roster of your units. Infantry squads, tanks, airplanes, artillery pieces and support squads need men to run them, or otherwise they just sit in the pool doing nothing.
The Soviets have the chance to evacuate their factories, which are then damaged for a bit before they start production somewhere in the Urals anew. The Axis do not have this luxury, and when their factories start to be overrun they have lost the war anyways.
The economic model doesn’t allow or ask for player input. It churns out the number from one turn to the next, with your job mainly being to ensure that enough equipment is at hand to replace losses before launching your next grand offensive.
Each unit keeps track of its equipment, as well as their experience level and fatigue. Damaged equipment is likewise counted in, as is the morale of the whole unit.
Thus your mission is to manage the equipment and your force, rather than the economy. That said, it’s probably the most complex model and obviously something we’ll eventually get to manage once Grigsby finally comes out with a title that covers the whole World War 2 around the globe.
How it all plays out
Finally, we get to the part about gameplay itself.
Starting in 1941, that is unless you play one of the other scenarios that no one every plays, the game opens up with Operation Barbarossa. For the first few turns, the Axis player enjoys some advantages, such as being able to pummel the Soviet air force on the ground.
Whether you’re playing as Axis or the Soviets, you’ll be moving your divisions and airbases along the hexmap, either trying to block advances whilst withdrawing in good order, or penetrating the enemy lines and trying to encircle your enemy.
The game offers a somewhat complex supply model. Again, you can go beer and pretzel with it, or you can spend your time to perfect your moves to make sure that your tanks are always fueled up and your planes ready to fly.
Railroads are of major importance, as that is how supplies are moved in the game, and from where your supply distance is calculated. The early axis advance usually ends when your railroad repair troops can’t keep up with the advance. Then your panzers sit with empty fuel tanks, awaiting the eventual Soviet Winter Offensive.
And once the blizzard comes, the tables turn. Now the Soviets enjoy the advantage, whilst the Axis units lose combat strength and equipment for moving during the blizzard turns. Once these two events have played out, the game flows onwards in somewhat predictable format. The Axis are strong in ’41 and ’42, and the Soviets start to field their infantry and tank corps in ’42 and ’43, forcing their way to Berlin during ’44 and ’45.
The combat is a complex beast, but the only thing you have to worry about is which unit is going to attack which unit. This you can decide by comparing the CV, which stands for combat value. Generally, you’ll want a 3 to 1 advantage, though sometimes less is enough…and there’s a whole host of factors that play into this.
For example, all HQ units have a leader. These leaders have different rating for infantry units, mech units, air units, as well as political , morale, initiative and admin values. These, in turn, are used for different dice rolls, which determined different bonuses you get…or don’t get. You can also set units to reserve, which might lead them to taking part in a battle, or not if your ratings aren’t high enough.
Another example is the forts, which represent either vast networks of fortifications, or simple trenches. These function as a combat modifier, increasing the defender’s capabilities considerably. Then there are all the off-map units, such as heavy artillery and pioneers who can join the battle and do away with those fortifications.
Combat is always about the attacking unit either failing or succeeding. There are no counter-attacks until you end your turn, and the other side starts making their moves. Each turn represents a week’s worth of action, which gives plenty of opportunities to make vast sweeping encirclements and likewise being bogged down in front of a stubborn enemy division that just refuses to budge.
The game can be a bit pricey, or at least it was when it first came out. Nowadays you can just wait for a sale and grab it for cheap. But even at full price, you have to consider how many hours you can pour into the game.
Personally, I’ve sunk over a thousand hours into the game, either playing or fiddling around with the editor. Whether the game costs 30 or 60 bucks is small change when you calculate the hourly entertainment you get out of it.
Though the game is aimed at grognards, it is actually rather easy to play. The artificial intelligence isn’t overly powerful, and it can usually be beaten with somewhat easy tactics.
It might take some time to master those tactics, which is the fun part. And though under the hood you’ll find all sort of statistics and tools, it’s not really all that necessary to understand or use them if you just want to have a bit of fun. For that, you can’t find any other game covering the same era at the same detail.
Then there’s the PBEM-scene which is still strong, and certainly going to give you your money’s worth when it comes to a challenge, whether you like playing as Axis or the Soviets.
You can wait for WitE 2 to come out too. I wouldn’t.