Hierarchy of War: Wargaming Barbarossa to Stalingrad

By Jeff Robinson 14 Apr 2014 0


The Eastern Front of World War 2 is an epic of the human experience.  I wanted to understand the events and experiences of the Eastern Front from different perspectives, and to interact with the history rather than just reading a historian's informed presentation of facts and opinions (though history books can hardly be replaced as a source of information).  As a gamer and military history fan I decided to make wargames, historical strategy games and other video game genres work for me on this.  That video games can complement traditional classroom-driven learning by providing engaging, interactive, and historically accurate content is becoming more widely accepted.  For this article I played games that simulate war on the Eastern Front from different perspectives.  While having a pretty good (sometimes frustrating) time playing the games, I learned a good deal of military history, strategy, and tactics, and how they related to each other across the levels of command.  This article tries to synthesize some brief stories of my Eastern Front gameplay with some reflections on the concerns of strategy and tactics at different levels (operational, small-unit, and first-person), and provide a comprehensive list of available wargames containing content from Barbarossa through Stalingrad.  Gameplay described here focuses on the bookends of the southern campaign fought mostly in the Ukraine, with the opening border battles of Operation Barbarossa on the one end, and the apocalyptic and decisive Battle of Stalingrad on the other.


Above my pay grade: Grand Strategy 

'Grand Strategy' games represent the highest level of the military/political hierarchy.  Gameplay is focused on managing resources such as raw materials (oil, steel, etc.), large troop formations at the theatre level (i.e. army groups, corps, and divisions), technological development, political factions, economics and other factors at a global, or at least at a theatre level.  Some games that come to mind would include Gary Grigsby's War in the East and Paradox's Hearts of Iron series.  

Recommended Grand Strategy level wargames: 

1. Gary Grigsby's War in the East: The German-Soviet War 1941-1945. 2by3 Games.

2. Paradox Games Hearts of Iron series


War from the Field Marshal's Command Post: Operational Wargames 

Operational level wargames deal with the movement and commitment of large units (divisions, brigades, and battalions) through territory of tens to hundreds of kilometres in scale, on timescales of days to weeks.  Operational wargames can familiarize players with the historical timelines and historical units and provide a good overview of the effects of large geographical obstacles and the difficulty of coordinating steady forward advance with adequate supply.  A principle concern of the commander is logistics.  Units falling outside of supply zones thorough movement or enemy encirclement quickly become ineffective for lack of ammo, fuel, food, and reinforcements.  As the Field Marshal, you attempt to maneuver forces in large scale attempts to cut off concentrations of enemy forces from supply, and conversely to open and protect supply lines for your own forces.  Mobile forces such as armored units and motorized infantry are excellent for making rapid advances over roads and unobstructed land, but risk outrunning supply or being cut off.  Major cities are of strategic importance because they are often hubs of supply and resistance, and provide good defensive terrain.  Forests and hill country also provide good defensive terrain but also inhibit movement and supply.  Mountain ranges, rivers, and large marshlands (such as the Pripyat Marshes) provide huge obstacles for invasion forces to circumvent, and bad weather causes further delays. 

Of the several excellent games in this category (see below), 2x2's Unity of Command and its second expansion Black Turn offers deep, yet accessible operational campaigning of Barbarossa through Stalingrad.  UoC has a simple, elegant interface that allows quick access to necessary unit stats and an easily interpreted map and unit markers.  The simplicity of the map and interface belies the devious AI and the real difficulty of achieving the historical goals on schedule.  The AI is flexible and responsive.  Playing as Germany during Barbarossa might seem quite easy to those casually familiar with history, but well positioned enemy blocking units, though weak, can critically delay an entire advance.  Despite the historical rapid advances of the operation, territory is hard won, particularly in the southern axis of advance through Ukraine, and the Fuhrer is not happy with delayed objectives. 

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Recommended Operational-level wargames for Barbarossa through Stalingrad: 

1. Panzer Campaigns series: Smolensk, Moscow '41, Karkhov, Rzhev '42, Stalingrad '42. HPSSIMS.

2. Kharkov: Disaster on the Donets, Across the Dnepr: second edition expansion. Strategic Studies Group.

3. Operation Barbarossa - The Struggle for Russia. Binary Evolution Studios.

4. Panzer Corps: Grand Campaign DLC: '41, '42, '43 East. The Lordz Game Studio.

5. Phoebetor: Germany at War: Barbarossa 1941

6. Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue. VR Designs.

7. War in Russia: Matrix Edition. Matrix Games.


Leading from the Front: Small Unit Tactical Wargames 

Commanding forces at the operational level is rather abstract.  A single division token represents thousands of men, the results of combat reduced to a dice roll and simple outcome: step loss, retreat, or destruction.  But what's really going on up at the front line?  Small unit wargames focus on how combat plays out at the company, platoon and squad level, where small groups of men struggle over city blocks, stream crossings, and hillsides.  Many options are available for tactical gaming of small-units on the Eastern Front, from electronic conversions of hex-map, turn-based boardgames (Conflict of Heroes, Lock'n'Load) to realtime/turn based tactical (Achtung Panzer, Combat Mission Barbarossa to Berlin, Theatre of War) to commercially-oriented RTS games that might not officially rate as 'wargames' (Men of War, Company of Heroes 2).  I chose two that stand out for different reasons: Close Combat Cross of Iron for its high intensity gameplay and tactical/psychological modelling, and HPSSims Advance of the Reich because it is the ultimate, comprehensive system for serious wargamers to game small units from Barbarossa to Stalingrad. 

Close Combat: Cross of Iron

Players command a platoon to company's worth of squads and hardware over the course of multi-day 'operations' spanning several maps (to accommodate gaining/losing ground). The operations are also combined into larger campaigns to gameplay engagements from some of the key battles of the Eastern Front in sequence.  Funds and units available for each day's battle reflect the historical units and force strengths.  Experience and losses accumulate through the battles of an operation making it important to not waste units to prevent coming up short at the end of the operation.  The game isn't really 'big' enough to accommodate a fully detailed Eastern Front; rather each operation provides something like a vignette from a particular battle.  Battles occur on somewhat low-res, 2D top-down maps of ~.5km square.  Each soldier is individually accounted for in terms of cover, suppression, ammo, fatigue, line of sight, etc.  Morale and experience are particularly important: inexperienced and low-morale troops will flee or surrender if pressed and outside a leader?s command radius. Suppressed troops will not be shooting back.  Tactics are important.  When I first started playing I wasted lives and resources on suicidal frontal assaults and poor positioning while I eventually learned to properly use suppressing fire, smoke, and artillery preparation for the attack and cover, concealment, and mutually supporting positions for the defence. Though even seemingly well positioned squads can still be annihilated by a panzer attack from an unanticipated direction or a well dropped mortar round.  Nonetheless, high realism settings good tactics are rewarded and are required for eventual victory. 

The 2D maps are probably a turn-off for many mainstream gamers and the AI could maybe be a bit more adaptive. Overall it still has a 1990's sort of feel to it.  I don't mind at all; the intensity of the action and the sound, and the sense of realism in the combat mechanics and modelling of tactical effects make every battle a unique learning experience.

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Squad Battles: Advance of the Reich 

The Squad Battles series are essentially a computer port of a tabletop, hexmap wargame.  It reminds me of Avalon Hill Squad Leader/Advanced Squad Leader.  The biggest gameplay obstacle of those tabletop games was the amount of time it took to roll the dice and consult the effects tables and terrain modifiers for every unit counter.  This wasn't a deal breaker for me per se, back in the old days, but I couldn't find any friends interested in that kind of commitment.  In Squad Battles that's thankfully all taken care of by the computer, leaving the player to focus on proper movement and tactics and other small-unit staples such as line of sight, ammo supply, morale, and leadership effects.   There are a bunch of scenarios included providing company-sized engagements spanning the Eastern Front from June '41 through December '42, with Smolensk, Kharkov, and Stalingrad battles well represented.  The player makes his moves and key fires manually, then the 'fast AI' takes care of all the rest of the individually represented rifle shots, machine gun bursts, and mortar strikes into a speedy turn resolution.  If you are into action movie graphics, stick with Company of Heroes or Men of War.  This solidly turn-based game is about the fundamental mechanics and will turn off players looking for a quick action/sexy graphics fix.  While the maps available are converted from historical maps, they still show generic, simple terrain representations at the hex level. 

The amount of content is outrageous once you master the user interface and realize the possibilities of the scenario editor.  Maps included for scenario building represent huge regional selections. The Stalingrad map as an example is roughly 500x110 hexes and at 40 meters per hex provides a whopping 20x4 square kilometres converted from historical maps of Stalingrad, covering the entire city proper in an editable, hex format.  Units are available/editable to represent any hardware and squad configuration present in the Eastern Front from 1941-1942 and immediately beyond, and the AI is programmable for scenario building. 

Recommended Small Unit Tactical Wargames: 

1. Squad Battles Advance of the Reich. HPSSIMS.

2. Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear, Ghost Divisions. Western Civilization Software.

3. Mark H. Walker's Lock 'n Load: Heroes of Stalingrad. Lock'n'Load Publising.

4. Close Combat: Cross of Iron. Strategy3Tactics.

5. Panzer Command: Ostfront. Black Hand Studio.

6. Combat Mission Barbarossa to Berlin, upcoming CM:Red Thunder for the late Eastern Front. Battlefront.

7. Achtung Panzer: Kharkov '43, Achtung Panzer: Operation Star. Graviteam.

8. Theatre of War. Theatre of War 2: Kursk. Battlefront.

9. Great Battles of WW2: Stalingrad. DTF Games.(hard to find)

10. Men of War: Assault Squad, Red Tide, Condemned Heroes. 1C Company.

12. Company of Heroes 2. Relic Entertainment/SEGA.


War From a Bird's Eye View: Flight Sims 

June 1941, southwest of Lvov.  Flying a ground attack mission in a thunderstorm is a health hazard.  It?s hard to see the instruments, hard to tell how close the ground is, and the wind keeps you from getting a steady lineup on target.  When you're close enough to make out a target you're in optimal range of enemy anti-aircraft.  To top it off I'm flying a biplane.  The Russians modernized their forces in the early-1930's and by 1941 they're a generation behind the Germans in weapons and tactics.  There isn't much hope of survival or success in these early days of the war.

 At this first-person individual's point of view we're hoping to destroy a few enemy vehicles or aircraft per mission; squad and company level gameplay proves that some well timed air support can be decisive in a ground engagement. The bird's eye perspective provides a broader sense of the battlefield than a first-person 'boots on the ground' POV.  Playing at normal time it can take a half hour or longer in-game to get to a distant engagement area, flying over the endless forested hills, agricultural lands, towns, and hamlets of the eastern Ukraine.  The lay of the land becomes familiar.  Operationally, attacking supply lines will also eventually add up, but for now it seems too little, too late.  In Lvov at this time, NKVD is mass murdering thousands of political prisoners in anticipation of imminent German occupation.  A few days later when the Germans gain control of the city, Einsatzgruppen and Ukranian nationalists will turn their attention on the Jewish population in an infamous pogrom of additional murder and abuse. 

IL-2 Sturmovik is the old warhorse of WW2 combat flight simulators.  For the latest compilation, '1946', the aircraft and campaign list are comprehensive, including practically every aircraft and nationality available in the WW2 era plus experimental aircraft and a hypothetical 1946 campaign.  It is a solid flight simulator at higher realism settings and still looks great for being somewhat aged.  There are early Eastern Front campaigns for both fighter and bomber including Lvov, Smolensk, Leningrad, and Stalingrad.  IL-Sturmovik is probably your best bet for Eastern Front air combat, though War Thunder (which I haven't played) has a simulator mode and some nice looking scenery.  Fortunately a new Sturmovik focusing on Stalingrad and hyped as the perfect vehicle for the Oculus Rift VR headset is in Beta and looks to be great.

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Recommended Flight Sim Wargames: 

1. IL-2 Sturmovik: 1946, IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad. 1C Company.

2. War Thunder. Gaijin Entertainment.


War from a rats' perspective: First-person shooter

'GET BEHIND COVER!!' Red Orchestra and Red Orchestra 2 are solid historical realism shooters providing the player some challenging realism-oriented gameplay, the chance to work in teams and command at the platoon level, and to experience some of the atmosphere of selected battles of the Eastern Front.  Team size is a platoon; there is a platoon leader ('Commander') spot and three or four squad leader spots with 9 player slots per squad.  Squad leaders throw smoke, order the bots, mark artillery and function as critically important mobile spawnpoints.  Machine guns suppress the enemy, engineers blow down walls, and riflemen provide fire to cover SMG wielding assault teams to clear buildings.  As for realism, you are not fast enough to outrun bullets. The rifle shakes if you try to aim while standing. There is basically no health system:  you're either briefly injured or your dead (death includes an incapacitating injury).   When I first started playing Red Orchestra I literally died hundreds of times without a clue as to where the enemy was shooting from.  Finally I got better at surviving: dive behind cover, move behind smoke, sprint or duck past open windows and exposed ground. Then I got better at finding and bringing fire to the enemy, like how to compensate for bullet drop on the MG and make long range shots with the bolt action Mosin-Nagant in the midst of chaotic battles.  It got really interesting when I found out how to mark and call in artillery strikes and command squads of AI bots.  

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FPS games always make tradeoffs to balance realism with entertaining gameplay.  Most FPS games are weighed quite heavily towards entertaining gameplay, but RO/RO2 are on the far end of the realism scale, this makes them challenging and difficult games to master.  Most players are on RO2 servers these days, rather than RO:Ostfront.  Servers are most often set on realism setting for maximum challenge.  Only a few servers, at specific times, contain teams of experienced players working together as squads; most of the time multiplayer gameplay is a free for all with just the cap zones to maintain focus.  A human commander working the bots and calling in good artillery can win against an unorganized team of weak human players (in what I consider the highest pinnacle of RO2 gameplay).  Some maps are small and limited, but some of the tank maps in can still be pretty large.  I'd love a 'world-map' of Stalingrad, personally.  The campaign mode adds a great deal to gameplay and team cohesion over multiple battles.  In campaign mode, teams of players fight individual battles over sectors of the Stalingrad map.  Winners choose to attack or defend, and choose which map they want to use (multiple maps can be available for each sector, determined by the server admin).  Loosing map sectors results in decreased reinforcements 'combat power'. 

Recommended First Person Shooters: 

Call of Duty: Stalingrad Act. Activision.

Red Orchestra: Ostfront, Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad. Tripwire Interactive. 


Historical References: 

Beevor, Anthony. Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege 1942-1943.

Kirchubel, Robert. Operation Barbarossa 1941 (1): Army Group South. Osprey Campaign Series

Gantz, David M. Armageddon in Stalingrad: September-November 1942.

Glantz, David M. Barbarossa: Hitler's Invasion of Russia 1941.

Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

(http://www.wwii-photos-maps.com/). Stalingrad archived aerial photos used in the screenshot composites.



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