Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gary Grigsby's War in the East - AAR(eview) - Setting the Stage

This is an AAR of an scenario of the game Gary Grigsby's War in the East. I have included some comments and screenshots as a supplement of a review that will be published next week.

This is an hex and turn-based wargame with complex inner workings that becomes surprisingly approachable thanks to a well-thought and intuitive interface. There is no way around to the massiveness of it though, and it is recommended elsewhere that you cut your teeth on scenarios smaller than the "big one" that covers the whole war. I followed that advice and I can speak of cutting teeth but also of breaking molars while trying to chew Russian Armies in vast expanses of territory. Emphasis on fighting the Russians and not the game, which is good news.

You may need to click the image to read the text. The scenario I chose is "Road to Leningrad"
Army Group North was the least powerful formation of Operation Barbarossa. With two infantry armies and one so-called "Panzer Group" (by this time emotions ran high in the Wehrmacht against dignifying tank formations, no matter how big, with the "Army" name), this formation had so many valuable strategic targets within its area of operations that the original Hitler's plan (Directive No.21,  18 December 1940) specifically instructed that, after dealing with Russian forces in Belarus, Army Group Center would pivot north leaving Moscow un-touched and support Army Group North until Leningrad is captured. This north-bound pivot of Army Group Center was later slashed in a new directive, but Army Group North was still left with strategic objectives including the Russian Baltic Fleet bases, a sizeable amount of Russian Air Force bases and the Bolshevic-boss-city Leningrad.

All the above objectives would be worth if I would be playing the big scenario covering the whole war. However, this is a small subset of the start of the war and the scenario designer has made his picks. In the screen below, the scenario objectives are labeled with flags. In the game the map can be zoomed in or out with the mouse wheel.

The game features four zoom levels that can switched with the mouse wheel. The level of detail and area covered by each zoom level is more than adequate to plan an operation. Note the grey-shaded hexagons: they mark areas not reachable for the current scenario. 
 This is a game that simulates the biggest military campaign in history. Being put at the helm of it may be shocking to the beginner and one of my concerns was how accessible would be to grasp your own order of battle. First thing I liked: color-coding by armies (every unit of the same army has a unique color in its icon), as this helps to visualize your troops deployment. Once you click a unit icon, a side bar appears (it will include also other units located in the same terrain hexagon) showing more details about that unit. The icons in the side bar can be right-clicked to deliver even more information about the unit. In the image below, I clicked on the 6th Panzer Division on the map, then on the side bar and once I saw the info screen for the division I clicked on a specific type of equipment. Bam! Information about any type of individual equipment. I told you, the level of detail of this game is deep.

Although not unique to this game, clickeable informational panels and windows are a great asset. In this animation, I went from visualizing a whole army group deployment through the armor details of a single type of tank in just three clicks. 
But don't panic, the deep level of detail of this game doesn't mean that you will have to think or manually address issues like the correct size of sprockets for the threads of your tanks. More on this later when we deal with supplies.

Coming back to the order of battle, the game also features a traditional informational window that allows you to see your armies in a single page. The text on these windows is also clickeable.

You may need to click this image to read the text. von Leeb's forces, ready for action.
I'm a very visual type of fellow, and I prefer to grasp the organization of my forces on the map. This game features a color-coded highlighting system that may take some time to get acquainted with. In the image below I clicked on the 11th Infantry Division (highlighted  purple in the map) and immediately all command-chain-wise related units were also highlighted. The 11th Infantry Division's boss is I Corps, which was highlighted orange. The 11th Infantry Division's sister formations (also under the command of I Corps) were highlighted yellow. Very convenient, but I have to admit this highlighting system took me some time to assimilate.

Who is your boss, schutzen?
Almost ready to move onto the Baltic States? Not so fast, commander! What's the enemy intel?

This is an area where the game surprised me good and bad. Fog of war is affected by the so-called "detection levels" of every specific unit. The higher the "detection level" the easier the unit will be detected. The "detection level" of a unit is computed by its distance to the enemy and covering terrain. Although it is not stated in the manual, I have the suspicion that the composition of the unit also affects its "detection level" because I usually can see more armored units than infantry units behind the fence of  the forward line of troops. Units with high "detection levels" are more likely to be plotted in the map compared with units with lower ones. I'm not so thrilled about the AI not being held to the same fog of war restrictions than me: according to the manual, the AI "knows" every hexagon in the map as having enemy troops or not with the only restriction being not knowing the enemy unit's arm or strength unless the enemy unit has a "detection level" that warrants such knowledge. This computer opponent design will surely raise some eyebrows and I'm anxious to see how it works overall.

Let's do some operational reconnaissance with our luxurious air assets. F5 is the key to switch your cursor into the aerial reconnaissance mode. Once the air reconnaissance mode is activated, one has to right click on the location/hexagon of interest. The game engine handles the specific aircrafts and squadrons from which your pilots will fly the mission and the enemy units spotted will be plotted in the map according to their "detection levels". In general, the beauty of the intel gathered lies in the eye of the officer as you will have to deduce what the AI is up to. In my experience, every time I spot an enemy headquarters unit by aerial reconnaissance makes me want a sound mod that says "bingo!" because the AI tends to keep its ducks in a row (i.e. a properly echeloned formation).

Click the image for an expanded view. The blue, white and red icon in the center of the screen represents an aerial recon mission. Note the Russian HQ units (brown icons): the farther they are from the front line, the more likely they are higher in rank.

Armed with dubious information it is time now to think of a plan that brings certain victory to our forces. Such is the life of the S2 and S3 officers, ain't it?

Let's talk a bit about operational art. For an army that had not a single paragraph in its military doctrine about operational art (as we know it today), it is somewhat ironic that the Wehrmacht cleaned up western Europe during 1939 and 1940 with sharp, clean and decisive ... Ummmm ... Master pieces of operational art (?!). At the onset of WWII, the German Army believed in one thing and one thing only: the battle of annihilation. Not that they didn't believe in it before, this belief comes from times as far as the times of Frederick the Great. Kurz und vives (short and lively), the warrior king used to say about his preferred way of waging wars. Germany could never afford to wage long wars and thus the need to destroy the enemy in a short and decisive battle. To achieve a battle of annihilation, Moltke was very influential with his belief in encirclement by troops moving fast towards the enemy's rear, supplemented with forward pressure by front line troops. The enemy would then be forced to fight a battle with a reversed front. To keep my game in tune with the historical counterpart, playing as the Germans I will try to keep a strong focus in the destruction of the enemy.

Invading Russia is like entering a funnel through its narrow extreme. At the line of departure you are squeezing your forces to enter the fight and some 80 miles later you are diluting your troop density beyond recognition. It is hard to encircle anything with one regiment every other 20 miles or so. But in this particular scenario I have the benefit of a closed flank (the Baltic Sea) and only one encircling pincer arm is needed. Based on the intel I could gather so far, south of the Dvina River-Riga line I am facing at least two Soviet Armies and I will try to destroy them before moving to where most of the Soviet forces are likely to be: defending Leningrad.

Click the image for an expanded view. Plan for the initial operations in Army Group North's sector.
It will be impossible to sustain an offensive at Leningrad without controlling the forests and establishing a good supply chain near Pskov. Gaining control of the city of Pskov will mark the first phase of the operation. I will spearhead with the 4th PzGrp moving in the general direction of Pskov. One of the two corps of 4th PzGrp will be pivoting northwest as to cut off the Soviets retreat from the regions south of the Dvina river-Riga line. 18th Army will keep pressing the Russians in the general direction of Riga and 16th Army will cover the 4th PzGrp's right flank Only God knows what the situation will be after we establish a foothold a Pskov, and only after that I am willing to formulate a plan for the follow up operations.

In the next installment, the start of the offensive.



Anonymous said...

Great AAR so far!

I'm just wondering what program you use to draw your lines on the map?

Also want to say I've been following your blog for awile love it :)

JC said...

Thanks for your comment and for visiting the blog. Those lines were drawn with Photoshop. Another good (and free) option is MilSketch.


Anonymous said...

One of the testers put together a Operational Boot Camp tutorial. Very handy.Get it here

Anonymous said...

Great game. Gets a 10 from me, good AI too and easy PBEM. Pretty polished product too. Played the old game to death back in the days when DOS ruled the world.

Anonymous said...

oh, Road to Minsk is a great scenario to start with.

spelk said...

Looking forward to see how this AAR develops.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely superb AAR! I've been seriously thinking of getting this game and your AAR has allowed me to decide.

I'm currently learning a new game I just bought. It is War in the Pacific-Admirals Edition. Created by the same developer-Gary Grigsby. Have you by chance ever reviewed it?

JC said...

Thanks for your comments, gents.

Sorry for the low pace. I'm flooded with other real life distractions.


Anon: WitP, I don't own it, but after War in the East it is likely I'm going to get it. :)