Monday, January 17, 2011

Gary Grigsby's War in the East - Review

This review does not include a detailed description of game features that I think is important for your decision of buying this game or not. Please take a look at my AAR for a closer look of such game features: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Thanks!

A non-scary monster game
War in the East is a bold game with an ambitious goal. It is the story of the biggest operation in military history told in 2113 counters and 25760 hexes. Based on its scope, depth and amount of moving parts, this game qualifies as a so-called "monster game" and is apparently geared exclusively towards the hardcore audience that enjoys this type of games. However it is surprisingly approachable and worth a look by all war gamers interested in operational warfare and/or the Eastern Front.

Headquarters at your cursor tip
War in the East is a war game encompassing the whole WWII Eastern Front and focusing at the military strategic and operational level of war (there is no diplomacy or other politico/socio-strategic options as in games like Hearts of Iron).  The game's smallest moveable units are divisions (or regiments if you break divisions down), with the occasional smaller-sized combat support unit. The terrain is divided in hexagons of 10 miles and each turn lasts one week of simulated time. The game flows depending on the player's actions and the progress of the war feels realistic. If everything goes according to history, the player is faced with the daunting task of invading or defending Russia (June 1941-November 1942), lead the reversal to an strategic offensive (as the Russians) or to an strategic defensive (as the Germans) (December 1942-December 1943) and finally leading the offensive (as the Russians) or the defense of Germany (1944 to 1945). To wage this gigantic conflict, the player has an sizeable amount of data to consider and a comparable amount of decisions to make. Data presentation in War in the East is simply fantastic, one of the best organized and interactive interfaces I've ever seen. It has hiccups here and there (for example I couldn't figure out is how to know how many air assets for close air support I have available before a ground attack), but overall is lean, functional and very well thought. The decision-making is mouse driven off course, and the clicking needed to put the command decisions in action is very straightforward. I am not talking about the obvious clicks needed to attack the enemy, but decisions like reinforce a formation, put it into reserve, repair a railroad, provide air supply to a troubled unit, change the leader of a division, corp or army, etc.

Hexes and turns for the age of Google Earth and real time-everything 

Every now and then I bump into titles that remind me that the turn and hexagon-based war game format is not exhausted but rather that I am exhausted of some other games using the format in a way that destroy the war-waging experience beyond recognition. War in the East is a turns and hexes war game but somehow I felt the game play as less constrained by such partitions in time and space.There are abstractions in War in the East, but every command decision I  made at the corps level and above were done without ever thinking of them. 

Jumping over the learning curve: drop that manual and fight!
I spared myself of the chore or reading the manual from cover to cover. My grognardy urge of checking and knowing every single rule and mechanism of the game was replaced early on by a desire to fight this virtual war, because it is obvious that the game's message was the war and not the way the game is designed.  I don't want to be a lawyer perusing the rules of a virtual war of precise clockwork inner workings but rather want to be a general leading men in the marshes of the unpredictable. The majority of individual rules and mechanics of the game that I've checked are pretty much like the ones found in other turn-hex-based war games. Your mileage may vary but consider this: how many of the total available Microsoft Word's menu items/buttons have you ever used? Has your relatively limited knowledge of all the commands available ever stopped your from writing a good story? To the spirit of these two questions, I learnt quite a bit about this game by having a clear understanding of what I wanted to accomplish in the military realm (objectives, lines of operation, shaping or decisive operations) and then going back to the manual to see what should done in terms of game rules and mechanics. War in the East is a tool to simulate the WWII Eastern Front, and every time I played the virtual war came out as the result of good or bad military command decisions and not as the by-product of the intricacies of the game engine.

Don't judge a game by its level of detail
War in the East is also one of the first games where complexity and high level of detail was not thrown at me like hot potatoes. In some War in the East game session somewhere in the world, a gamer is busy checking how many gallons of fuel, rounds of ammunition and number of grenadier squads the 7th Panzer Division has available and I'm sure he will put that information to good use. In my war room, I focus on lines of operation, mobility corridors for anything bigger than a Corps and I wonder if air superiority is all that necessary at this time of the operation. The other gamer is not being overzealous and I am not being careless. We are enjoying the same game from different perspectives and with different styles. I don't want to fool you into thinking that there will be no pain in moving a thousand counters at every turn of the big scenarios, but also I don't want you to think that all the detailed information the game can feed you needs to be acted upon. A big part of being a leader is to figure out what information is important.

Pushing three million men to victory
The big scenarios featuring the whole theater of operations are not to be played quickly. You couldn't even if you wanted to. The amount of counter pushing is big. It took me some thirty minutes just to move every German unit in the Barbarossa scenario. That is not counting the time to identify formations and to decide and sort objectives. Turn resolution in scenarios that cover the whole war take also some serious time. The big scenarios are more like a project you work on through several gaming sessions. If you are not into such type of commitments, you will find smaller scenarios with lots of game play value. Yet after a while you will agree with me that War in the East sorely needs more of the smaller scenarios featuring operations during the 1942-1945 time period.

Specs of the new car great, driving it feels like ...
.. being a military strategist, an operational planner, the organizer of things sized beyond the grasp of most mortals, the rallying leader in the eve of certain destruction. This is like having command over the collective fighting spirit of two nations in the ultimate duel for survival.

Final thoughts
Some people see an unsurmountable mountain in the sheer size of this game. I see opportunities. Others gasp at its price. I rejoice at the prospect of years of quality gaming. Whatever your take may be, this is not a war game that will go un-noticed in the history of the hobby.