Review: Decisive Campaigns-Barbarossa

By James Cobb 18 Jan 2016 0

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A literal English translation of the German adjective weltgeschichtlich is meaningless and clumsy: “world historical”. A better paraphrase is “world changing” In this sense, Operation Barbarossa, the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union, was a weltgeschichtlich event because the world changed because of it. No wonder so many wargames have been produced around this pivotal conflict. Yet, despite its importance, Matrix/Slitherine Games and VR Designs have made it the third entry into the Decisive Campaigns series. The developers have given the conflict a unique point of view distinguishing it from the usual hex-based war game paradigm.

No Sizzle, Tons of Steak

The terrain and on-map units emphasize clarity over pizazz. Mountains, forests and rivers are clearly marked as are railroads. Cities are concentric circles with major ones marked with a red center. Cities with airfields have an airplane silhouette. The three theater boundaries for each side are marked in red with the front as a white-dashed line. German supply lines are chains of trains and trucks that turn from green to yellow to red as they become strained while grey indicates a pause in the supply flow due to moving the forward supply base (FSB) or disasters. Numbers on the train and truck icons indicate which army or panzer groups are receiving the supplies. Further icons show supply bases and their condition as well as the previous location of moving headquarters. Overlays show command range and general supply status. Unit icons can be shown with weapon silhouettes or NATO symbols. Each unit has an unmodified combat value and a health bar indicating its general condition including readiness, experience and morale. The usual mini-map and strategic map illustrating the entire front and aiding navigation are present. At the top of the main screen is a representation of or the weather and terrain modifiers of the selected hex. The other tabs on the top bar are a branching OOB and a STATS tab graphing total troops and casualties by regime and troop type. The usual sound effects add verisimilitude to combat and movement.

The order of battle for infantry divisions is useful to judge the situation.

If the on-map unit information seems sparse, the bottom bar makes up for it in spades. Clicking on a unit shows the six basic attributes such as action points and supply along with illustrations and numbers of each troop type in the division. The first click also shows unit name, parent army amount of reinforcements requested and the odds of the unit retreating in combat. More details can be found by clicking on the appropriate tab with seventeen factors. Unit troop tabs show type characteristics that can be compared with other friendly units or enemy types. The bottom bar also depicts players’ relations with superiors, subordinates and panzer group commanders with portraits of the historical personages.

Different tanks are compared.

Weapons are illustrated

Not everybody in Berlin is happy

The conditions of panzer groups are shown with four arrows.

The meat of this game lays not so much in its graphics but the myriad of reports generated each turn. Over thirty reports representing daily logs running from the overall situation down to individual headquarters and battles fought the previous turn can be accessed. Each has several lines whose meanings are explained by the ever-helpful tool tip. A particular one reveals how High Command is grading the player. Reading each report takes time and slows play but totally ignoring all reports assures defeat. Players need to decide which reports are worthwhile in a given situation.

Army Group Center's situation is spelled out in its log.

Army Group North's battles are chronicled

DC: Barbarossa is obviously a deep game with a steep learning curve. Help can be found in the fourteen short in-game videos explaining the basics and some advanced concepts. The 320-page PDF manual does an excellent job explaining the game. A beautiful hardback copy of the manual can be bought from the game's site, Youtube has some helpful videos as well.

Decisions, Decisions!

The unique feature of Operation Barbarossa is that players are not put in the role of a warrior god, pushing millions of men about and concerned primarily with winning. Rather, players have a nebulous spot, presumably Field Marshal Franz Halder, in the historical chain of command. Their effectiveness, when playing as German, rests upon relationships with superiors and underlings. As Russian, matters are simpler since players are an alter ego of Stalin who answers to no one. The two functions for both sides that deal with relationships are decisions and regime cards with rewards and costs measured in Political Points (PP). Decisions begin with a pre-game turn. The Russian just decides which theater (Front) has priority – North, Central or South Interesting “What-Ifs” include threatening Hitler, building more fortifications and rehabilitating purged officers. German decisions are more complicated and risky. Players must choose whether to follow Hitler’s priorities or go their own way. If they agree with Adolph, they have good relationships with Der Fuehrer and get extra PPs. If players buck Hitler, the relationship sours and they get fewer PPs. Other pre-turn decisions are choosing rail routes in the North and Center, the use of railroad troops and what to do with Finnish and Romanian allies. Players can hand decisions to staff but do so at the risk of bad choices since ADCs are selected randomly each game from a pool of mostly stupid officers.

The decisions in the pre-start are critical

Der Fuehrer commands!

The first turn yields more decisions for players. The German must decide matters of oil supply, use of the Luftwaffe and deployment of security troops in rear areas. The Russian doesn’t have any decisions. This turn also yields regime cards. The German can change posture from the powerful but supply-consuming Blitzkrieg to the less intense sustained offensive or defensive. Neither of the latter is a good idea early. The German must also choose which armies or panzer groups get each theater’s focus. Focus yields more power and gives the chosen commander officer cards to enhance his abilities in following turns. Artillery can be distributed in a similar manner. Cards are played from a tab with eligible headquarters highlighted. Once played, cards remain with that commander until the player changes it. Each change takes four days to take effect. Russian cards deal with reorganization, front priority and political matters. A key category is the use of the two Soviet troubleshooters, Zhukov and Khrushchev. Zhukov is played on any Front headquarters and either stiffen that commander or take over completely. He can also be beneficial to individual armies. Khrushchev can berate dismiss or shoot Front commanders and hopefully get a better man. On the army level, he can also “disappear” commanders or instill confidence. Most cards cost PPs and that cost should be a player’s consideration. Cards appear each turn.

Many cards per turn can be played

Envelopment is always a good choice

Zhukov is about to "throw some stick around"

A controversial twist can be connected with cards. If the Geneva Conference preference is turned off, players will be asked to make moral choices as to joining the Nazi party or turning a blind eye to atrocities. Taking the moral high ground costs PPs and sours relations but going along with superiors may place the player in front of a war crimes tribunal.

Smoozing Prima Donas while Fighting.

Action in Operation Barbarossa occurs on two fronts. German players must handle armies as in a typical wargame but they must also stay on the good side of Hitler, OKW, OKL, OKH and army group commanders. To get necessary resources and PPs, superiors must be kept at least in a neutral mood or they’ll start being stingy. The generals in charge of trains and trucks also must be kept from being angry or they’ll slow deliveries. Army Group commanders who don’t like the player can ignore regime cards when played. A political balancing act must be accomplished in order to assure a positive battlefield outcome. Russian concerns are simpler; keep Stalin’s paranoia level low or he will imprison or kill officers, causing temporary confusion. Paranoia rises when officers do too badly or too well. Russian player’s big command problems come from a poor officer corps. Each turn Front commanders undergo an activation roll that determines the amount of Action Points (AP) their units receive. Given that most of the commanders were incompetent in 1941, low activation levels yield sparse AP.

After making decisions and using cards, the more typical battle map play on a hex scale of thirty kilometer and four-day turns with division-sized units begins. Selecting a division brings up reachable hexes with red arrows signifying hexes from which the unit can attack enemies. Units can be moved either as stacks or individually. Combat clearly resemble earlier Decisive Campaign games in that targets are clicked upon to show the maximum number of combat point that can be used without crowding penalties. This maximum grows with the number of hexes attackers strike from. Multiple hexes also increase the concentric attack bonus. Where the new game’s combat deviates from the others is no air or artillery assets are assigned to a battle because the play of cards handled this abstractly. The only artillery on the map is one German siege artillery unit activated by a card and moved to cities by railroad.

A German division has a choice of targets

The mechanics of combat after target selection is choosing attacking units as if ordering from a Chinese restaurant menu – one from hex A, one from hex B. A button allows selection of all possible attackers and is a good way to get the entire picture. However, using all has the drawbacks of crowding, overkill and leaving nothing for follow-up attacks. A better method is to use the checkmark button for single units. Picking units from stacks on different hexes allows for concentric attacks and calculated proportioning of power. Battles are resolved in rounds depicted a rows of icons representing division. Rows slide back as APs are exhausted and casualties’ are shown by parts of icons turning red. A detailed round-by-round, unit-by- unit description with loss numbers can be summoned. Defenders’ results are held ground, retreat, panic and eliminated. Victorious attackers can usually enter vacated hexes and attack again if enough APs are left. The usual combat modifiers, terrain, supply, experience and morale, apply. Units must be within five hexes of their headquarters to fight well. Unique to this game are the ramifications of weather. Germans suffer in the winter but can get some relief from special winter clothing. Siberian troops are always ready for the cold; they consider Wisconsin toasty in February.

A Russian division is elminated

More battle details

Early in the game, Germans push the Red Army around like nine pins but this success carries problems of its own. Panzer groups thrust deep into Russia but their headquarters must be within ten hexes of a forward supply base (FSB). FSBs can be moved to captured cities by decisions but the move takes eight days, leaving the theaters using the supplies on hand. Also, combat creates wear and tear on vehicles and men. Divisions and armies can be rested and regain efficiency but the Germans have no time to waste; if they haven’t taken their objectives by December, they’ve lost. German victory can only be achieved by intelligent use of logistics. “Helper” buttons reflect anguished commanders’ calls for fuel, ammunition, transport and PPs but add negative factors to the victory formula. The Luftwaffe can deliver some supplied by air but only by syphoning off resources from the global supply stocks. Reassigning units to different theaters can sustain drives but decrease fuel and ammunition from the original theater and scrambles organization. Reinforcement and replacements arrive at the whim of a die roll. Partisans, created from eliminated Russian units, can disrupt supply. The Germans can starve themselves by winning in the wrong fashion.

Many Russian divisions are cut off

Victory is a grid-like decision table. Each side can achieve their priorities so the level of victory depends on points obtained by casualty differentials. Player actions and difficulty levels affect the kind of victory awarded. Hence, a German playing on the higher difficulty level and eschewing “Helpers” can achieve a major victory. Otherwise, a minor victory or draw is more likely. A fine PBEM system and many play preference ensure many hours of play. New players feeling overwhelmed by new features can use “Easy” mode to get many PPs and can turn decisions off.

Even with beta 1.02g, questions remain. Is the German siege artillery too powerful? Does the supply system work? Is a game with only one 52-turn scenario commercially viable? The developers, Victor Reijkersz and Cameron Harris, continually work on improvements. Nonetheless, Operation Barbarossa in its present state represents a highlight in the progress of serious computer war gaming. One hopes the industry takes note and follows this concept because it is a game which transcends the usual paradigms.

About the Author

Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he deals with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online. He is adjunct faculty at Cardinal Stritch University.

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