Brace for Barbarossa - Five Essential Games for the Eastern Front

By Alex Connolly 22 Jun 2016 2

When Adolf Hitler declared the German jackboot need only kick in the Soviet door to make way for lebensraum and glory, he probably didn't expect to be receiving a furred valenki up the date in return, a mere five months after hurling around three thousand tanks, two thousand aircraft and a whole lot of arty over the border. Fifty kilometres on the first day, Moscow outskirts by October; eight-hundred thousand-odd men from a four million-strong invasion force whittled away in a brutal grind only the Soviet could withstand, halt and eventually drive all the way back to the Reichstag.

As such, in the vacuum of wargaming and its canvases of case-specific freedoms and restrictions, I've assembled a clutch of titles that investigate, depict and go beyond those fearsome first few months of German's tilt at the Russian bear. Will the Reichsadler prevail, or will plantigrade paws reach westward from the Kremlin and have a readier Russia roaring? It is entirely up to you.

Gary Grigsby's War in the East: The German-Soviet War 1941-1945

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What Barbarossa list would be complete with a monster hitter like the succinctly-titled Gary Grigsby's War in the East: The German-Soviet War 1941-1945? Each session is a massive undertaking; the length and breadth of the German-Soviet front is measured in an inordinate amount of statistics and counters. As if to appease the target audience, little is automated and players will either love or learn to accept repositioning up to hundreds of units per turn. War in the East is a hyper-detailed game for detail-oriented players. A celebration of the grizzled grog with a dedicated game table and pricing accommodation to match. No part-timers here. 

An accommodating gamut of scenarios helps to familiarise newer players with its deep mechanics, but War in the East is a defiantly old school giant. If the idea of chits stretching far into the digital horizon sounds appealing, pack a few extra layers. I hear it gets cold.

Decisive Campaigns: Barbarossa

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You might be deft at driving on Moscow, but how strong is your purge game? What's a fellow to do if he fails the Fuhrer? We've known any number of PC wargames that deal exclusively with chits in the East, but VR Games' Decisive Campaigns: Barbarossa also includes the chaps. Atop the hex and counter system Dr. Bruce Geryk described as 'not for the faint-hearted' sits a unique political strata. Players must make hard calls as a member of the German officer corps, or as Uncle Joe managing the turn of the Red Tide. 

A wrought-iron wargame with a grizzled party management dermis, the asymmetry of command issues make each side of the front engaging. It might not always work, and the factional squabbling in the Reich may be a touch too nugatory in some areas, but for a game that can inject life at the top as much as it puts boots on the ground, Decisive Campaigns: Barbarossa is a worthwhile addition to the discerning Ostfronter. 

Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad

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When the shooter market decided they'd had their fill of World War Two, moving on to vacuous, uncomplicated depictions of complicated contemporary conflicts, Tripwire Interactive stayed the course with their blend of gruelling multiplayer realism. With roots in the Unreal Tournament mod scene and the first true game, Ostfront 41-45, Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad is the apogee of Tripwire's period vision. Lethal, complex, demanding; a round of Heroes of Stalingrad is harrowing like no other. No point and click here. Players must account for bullet drop and HUD-lessness, endure withering fire that suppresses to the point of blithering idiocy or leaves those not outright killed whimpering in the rubble-strewn canyons of factories and apartment blocks.

Not to suggest the Western front couldn't paint a similarly desperate picture, but there's something about the frigidity and fear on the shores of the Volga. The squeal and rumble of a fully-crewed tank, clawing its way about in the open under the fabergé predation of enemy troops, lodged in an elevated urban hellscape. If the German dream of Barbarossa was a '41 Kremlin Christmas, Stalingrad was the nightmare of '43. Heroes of Stalingrad paints it as such.

Unity of Command: Black Turn

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Unity of Command has been called one of wargaming's greats. A triumph of visual and mechanical design, grognard Übermensch Tim Stone called it 'wargame of the year material', and true to proposition, it scooped up. JC of Real and Simulated Wars saw it as an absolute breath of much-needed fresh air; a clean, smart and accessible breeze through a musty, stat-addicted grotto. In short, Unity of Command blew the doors off a relatively insular part of modern strategy gaming.

The original Unity of Command dealt with the later stages of the Eastern Front conflict, but it was with the Black Tide DLC that we got to see Barbarossa treated with the same straightforward mechanics of supply. The game still retained that jugular-pouncing AI found in the base game, so no supply chain or wavering line was safe along the front. Essential wargaming, Barbarossa and beyond.

Graviteam Tactics: Operation Star

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The Achtung! part of Graviteam's formerly titled Eastern Front tactical armour series conjured images in my head of AP shells being hoisted into breeches, such is the German cadence. Or my Commando comic understanding of German. Less comical is the way Graviteam Tactics: Operation Star models large-scale motorised and armoured engagement in the early months of 1943. Split between an admittedly initially obtuse strategic layer and a crunchy blend of Combat Mission and Close Combat, Operation Star is something to behold. It operates fearlessly on a scale others might baulk at. Each shunt of materiel could bring it into contact with the enemy, or it may not. Every column desperately trying to reinforce a hold-out may find their sojourn uneventful, or end up being the unforeseen focal point and pivot of your campaign.

The Graviteam Tactics series is loaded with campaign expansions and modules that go beyond the Eastern Front; including -- much to one's pleasure and schedule's disdain -- Operation Hooper, as well as other relative unknowns in the West like the Khazakhstan/China flashpoint of Zhalanashkol. However, if you want to fit sprockets to treads and give the tankodesantniki the ride of their lives, Operation Star and its deep clutch of Soviet theatre expansions are the way to go.

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