The Wargamer's Guide to WW2's Eastern Front03 Aug 2020 7
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 in return mere months after hurling three thousand tanks, two thousand aircraft and a 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 Soviets could withstand, halt and eventually drive all the way back to the Reichstag.
We'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, from Barbarossa to Bagration and more.
Check out our list of excellent war games from WW2's Eastern Front.
Developer: Avalon Digital
Avalon Digital have really been stepping up their game over the past year, and Winter War so far stands as one of their better releases. Whilst not strictly speaking 'Eastern Front', it does deal with the Finno-Soviet war that raged in 1939. This is a turn-based area control game, with surprisingly vibrant snowy visuals, and a wide variety of unit cards to represent key people and units.
The are two grand campaigns, as well as several smaller scenarios that can also be played from either side. There's also some nice little 'what if' replayability features in terms of potential allied involvement, as well as other historically-themed events. You should read our Winter War review for more.
Krim, the War in the Crimea 1941 – 42
This one focuses on one specific part of the long-winded history of the Eastern Front. The game follows the German 11th Army’s operations in the Crimean Peninsula from late October 1941 through 4 July 1942. These offensives weren't strictly speaking part of Operation Barbarossa, so aren't really counted as part of the main offensive which was already coming to a close by this point.
Yobo makes what you could call 'lite' wargames. There's robust and challenging mechanics, but you're not going to get the level of detail one might find in a Gary Grigsby game. Still, it's a pretty decent WW2 game for what it is, and great for someone looking for a more 'snacky' game to get their fix. This is actually a digital adaptation from a physical game that was released in the second ever issue of Command Magazine. Read our review for more.
Panzer Corps 2
The self-proclaimed 'King' of WW2 turn-based strategy war games, the Panzer Corps series is currently one of the leading contenders to throne of Panzer General. The sequel, Panzer Corps 2, sought to build upon the sprawling foundations of the first game but enhancing the tactical options available to the player and offering a new 3D rendering engine.
It's a poster-child for 'modern' wargaming, although it's not as in-depth as some of the other titles you'll find below. At the time of writing, Panzer Corps 2 only features campaigns from the perspective of the Wehrmacht, and there are two that take place on the Eastern Front - Barbarossa 1941, and Kursk 1943. Low-hanging fruit as far as topics for operational games in this theatre go, but they're still good fun and we imagine more Eastern front content will be added in the future. Read our Panzer Corps 2 review for more.
Order of Battle (series)
Developer: The Artistocrats
Available from: Steam, Matrix Store
This Order of Battle franchise is a Panzer General-like turn-based strategy war game that features operational level combat across a variety of theatres in World War 2. It has been described as "Panzer Corps but with logistics", so if that floats your boat there are a couple of options you can look at across the various expansions that have released over the years:
Order of Battle: Endsieg - the third and final expansion in the 'Weltkrieg' trilogy, this expansion starts off in the Eastern Front where you play as the Wehrmacht. Given the nature of the OOB games the outcomes can stray into alt-history quite massively, but the meat of the Eastern Front is here for you to muck around in.
Order of Battle: Red Star & Red Steel - The most recent expansion trilogy lets you play through the events of the Second World War from the perspective of the Soviet Union itself. Red Star starts prior to Operation Barbarossa, but ends in 1941, where-as Red Steel picks things up in January 1942 and involves several scenarios running through to the end of 1943. We imagine the third game in this trilogy will deal with the tail-end of the war through 1944 & 1945 with a good dose of alternate history to cap things off.
Steel Division 2
Developer: Eugen Systems
This may prove to be a controversial one, but Steel Division's second entry is all about the Eastern Front. Specifically, it's about Operation Bagration which kicked off not long after the D-Day landings, and after the tide had turned against the Germans in their war against the Soviet Union. Steel Division 2 is remarkable for a couple of reasons: Firstly, the tactical engine has been adapted to try and portray what warfare was like on the Eastern Front. Gone are all the hedgerows, forets and claustrophic spaces - Russia is big, and engagement ranges were a lot further. If you've come from the first Steel Division game, this is something specifically you'll need to watch out for.
The second is the campaign map & systems, which is brand new to this game. The 'Army General' mode is a wonder of digital war game design. Containing just enough depth and options, it offers something akin to an old-school hex-and-counter experience, but with the production values of a modern strategy game. It's not as polished as we were perhaps expecting it, but once it's fully armed and operational this is likely to become the new gold standard in computer war game campaign systems. Make sure you check out our review if you want to know more.
Gary Grigsby's War in the East: The German-Soviet War 1941-1945
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 re-positioning 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
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.
Il-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles
Developer: 1C Game Stiods
Even if you don’t care one whit for flight sims, this reinvigoration of the series that ruled the WW2 air combat roost for a decade features the finest recreation of the Stalingrad battlefield in video gaming. That alone is enough to warm even the most hardened wargamer’s heart. Veterans of Red Orchestra 2 in particular will spot more than a few familiar sites.
Of course, those that do persist beyond such (wonderful) eye candy will be rewarded with one of the more welcoming of the hardcore flight simulators. A generous selection of warbirds from both sides of the massive conflict, ranging from the classics to the more left of field (because who can’t say no to a Ju-52?) is supported by a variety of single and multiplayer modes. The first realistic tank sim in perhaps half a decade (fittingly set at Kursk) has also just begun to join Il-2’s line up as well.
Unity of Command
Developer: 2x2 Games
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. It's 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.
Unity of Command 2
We're giving a token shout-out to UoC's sequel, Unity of Command 2. It's not got any 'official' Eastern Front content in it yet, but a recent patch included a number of 'what if' scenarios, including one where the UK & Americans attack the Soviet Union in 1945. We imagine full-boded Eastern Front campaigns will be coming down the line as well, so watch this space.
Graviteam Tactics: Mius Front
It’s back, it’s meaner, it’s… easier? Graviteam manages to make the second iteration of their continuing love affair with forgotten Eastern Front battlefields much more user friendly than the last one – although we continue to deal with relative terms here.
Whilst the interface might as well be in Cyrillic for all I can make sense of it, push through and you will find probably one of the most realistic depictions of the fighting on the Eastern Front in video gaming. There are no heroes here and certainly no grand manoeuvres. Instead every battle is fought in steppe or miserable forest. After much bloodletting the frontline will move (maybe) a kilometre or two – nothing more. War at this level is distinctly impersonal. Your soldiers really would honestly prefer to just live. All that daring-do is for other brave, stupider, people. This might be what a game made by historian David Glantz, rather than Antony Beevor, would look like.
Assault Squad 2: Men of War Origins
Developer: Digitalmindsoft, 1C Games Studios
The game that launched a thousand spin-offs, Men of War is an excellent WW2 war game series, that offers intense, tactical warfare with an engaging logistics system and excellent visuals to keep you rooted in the action. It's like a more serious version of Company of Heroes, although it does require a lot of concentration. It all started with the first 'Men of War' game released in 2009 (which in itself was a remake/spiritual sequel to a previous game made using the same engine).
This initial offering came with several story campaigns from the point-of-view of various factions, with the Soviet branch dealing with the Eastern Front in very broad strokes. Through the course of the Soviet campaign you'll be desperately trying to hold the Germans back as you retreat, scrabble for weapons with your scratch companies in Stalingrad, before finally pushing the Germans all the way back to Berlin.
Assault Squad 2: Men of War Origins is a re-make of the original Men of War (even though that's also still for sale) using the Assault Squad 2 engine. While it's not an essential purchase, Men of War classic's campaigns are a bit more structured and have more personality than Assault Squad's later preference for pure scenario-play, plus it doesn't hurt that Origins benefits form the improved visuals and gameplay mechanics the series has enjoyed in nine years since it originally released.
What's your favourite Operation Barbarossa/Eastern Front wargame? Let us know in the comments!